CSS Robert E. Lee

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CSS Robert E. Lee
CSS Robert E. Lee, 1862
Career (CSA) Confederate Navy Jack
Name: CSS Robert E. Lee
Operator: Confederate States Navy
Laid down: 1862
Launched: 1862
Commissioned: 1862
Fate: Captured by U.S. Navy, 9 November 1863
Career (USA) 100x35px
Name: USS Fort Donelson
Operator: Union Navy
Acquired: 9 November 1863
Commissioned: 29 June 1864
Decommissioned: 17 August 1865
Fate: Sold October 1865 and renamed Isabella
Career (Chile) Chilean Navy Jack
Name: Concepción
Acquired: 1866
Commissioned: 1866
Decommissioned: 1868
Fate: Sold 1 May 1868
General characteristics
Displacement: 900 tons
Length: 283 ft (86 m)
Beam: 20 ft (6.1 m)
Draft: 10 ft (3.0 m)
Propulsion: Steam engine
Speed: 13.5 knots (25.0 km/h)
Armament: • 5 × 12-pounder cannons
• 2 × 30-pounder cannons

CSS Robert E. Lee was a blockade runner for the Confederate States during the American Civil War that later served in the United States Navy as USS Fort Donelson and in the Chilean Navy as Concepción.

CSS Robert E. Lee

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."

USS Fort Donelson

USS Fort Donelson, circa 1864-65

Robert E. Lee was condemned as a prize at Boston, Massachusetts, acquired by the United States Navy and placed in commission on June 29, 1864 as USS Fort Donelson, with Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Thomas Pickering in command.

Fort Donelson was assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, cruising in blockade of the North Carolina coast through the remainder of 1864 with brief periods of repair at Norfolk, Virginia. From January 13 to January 22, 1865 she aided in the bombardment of Fort Fisher's batteries and landed ammunition supplies for the Union forces. Fort Donelson joined the fleet in attacking Fort Anderson on February 17–February 18. During March she cruised in company with USS Pequot to Bermuda, was present at City Point, Virginia when U.S. President Abraham Lincoln arrived on board River Queen on March 20, and acted as guardship at Fort Fisher. She operated with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron until June, but when ordered to the West Gulf squadron was found to be in such poor condition that she returned to Norfolk.

Fort Donelson was decommissioned on August 17, 1865 at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and sold in October 1865. She subsequently returned to civilian employment under the name Isabella.


In 1866 the ship was purchased for $85,000 by the Chilean Navy and commissioned as Concepción, arriving at Valparaíso on August 22. On September 3, Commander José Galvarino Riveros Cárdenas was placed in command of Concepción, which saw service in southern Chile during that nation's war against Spain. The Chilean Navy sold Concepción on May 1, 1868; her subsequent history is unknown.