CSS Robert E. Lee

CSS Robert E. Lee


Builder: Alexander Collie & Co., Manchester
Laid down: Autumn of 1862
Launched: 1862
Commissioned: 1862
Fate: Captured by U.S. Navy, 9 November 1863

General Characteristics
Area of Operation:
Length: 283 feet
Beam: 20 feet
Draft: 10 feet
Propulsion: Oscillating-engined paddle-steamer with two stacks
Speed: 13.5 knots
Complement: 50 Officers and crew
Armor: Iron Hull

Robert E. Lee was originally the merchant ship Giraffe, a schooner-rigged, iron-hulled, oscillating-engined paddle-steamer with two stacks, built on the River Clyde in Scotland during the autumn of 1862 as a fast Glasgow-Belfast packet. Alexander Collie & Co. of Manchester acquired her for their blockade-running fleet, but were persuaded by renowned blockade-runner Lieutenant John Wilkinson, CSN, to sell her to the Confederate States Navy for the same £32,000 just paid.

Her first voyage was into Old Inlet, Wilmington, North Carolina in January 1863 with valuable munitions and 26 Scottish lithographers, eagerly awaited by the Confederate Government bureau of engraving and printing. On January 26, Union intelligence maintained she “could be captured easily” at anchor in Ossabaw Sound, but this was not to be for another 10 months. Running out again, Robert E. Lee started to establish a nearly legendary reputation for blockade running by leaving astern blockader USS Iroquois.

Lieutenant Richard H. Gayle, CSN, assumed command in May 1863, relieving Lieutenant John Wilkinson; but Wilkinson was conning the ship again out of the Cape Fear River from Smithville, North Carolina on October 7, 1863, as recounted by Lieutenant Robert D. Minor, CSN, in a letter to Admiral Franklin Buchanan dated February 2, 1864, detailing the first venture to capture USS Michigan and liberate 2,000 Confederate prisoners at Johnson’s Island, Sandusky, Ohio. Robert E. Lee transported Wilkinson, Minor, Lieutenant Benjamin P. Loyall and 19 other naval officers to Halifax, Nova Scotia with $35,000 in gold and a cotton cargo “subsequently sold at Halifax for $76,000 (gold) by the War Department — in all some $111,000 in gold, as the sinews of the expedition.”

Thus Wilkinson was in Canada and Gayle commanding when Robert E. Lee’s luck ran out on November 9, 1863, after 21 voyages in 10 months carrying out over 7,000 bales of cotton, returning with munitions invaluable to the Confederacy. She left Bermuda five hours after her consort, CSS Cornubia, only to be run down a few hours after her by the same blockader, USS James Adger. The two runners were conceded to be easily “the most noted that ply between Bermuda and Wilmington.”

List of Commanders/Crew
Lt. John Wilkinson
Lt. Richard H. Gayle, CSN

Painting Information

Books/Articles and other resources

Back to Confederate Blockade Runners


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