The Robert E. Lee, nicknamed the "Monarch of the Mississippi," was a steamboat built in New Albany, Indiana in 1866. The hull was designed by DeWitt Hill, and the riverboat cost more than $200,000 to build. It was named for Robert E. Lee, General-in-Chief of the Confederate States of America, and the steamboat gained its greatest fame for racing and beating the then-current speed record holder, the Natchez, in an 1870 steamboat race.
In 1870, the Robert E. Lee won a famed steamboat race against the Natchez, going from St. Louis, Missouri to New Orleans, a distance of 1,154 miles (1,857 km), in 3 days, 18 hours and 14 minutes. John W. Cannon, the captain of the Lee, ensured victory by removing excess weight, not allowing passengers, and using prearranged barges to increase the speed of refueling. The Natchez finished the race with the speed of 3 days, 21 hours and 58 minutes, but was delayed by a sandbar for six hours, and had numerous passengers to weigh it down. To this day no commercial boat has beaten the speed record set by the Lee during the race. However, the Bogie, a 1929 motor boat built by Leroy Craft, beat the Lee's record.
It usually ran between New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi. However, during spans of bad business, it would forsake Natchez and instead go to St. Louis or Louisville, Kentucky.
At 3:30 am on September 30, 1882, the Lee caught fire thirty miles north of New Orleans, at Point Pleasant, killing 21 people. It had left Vicksburg, Mississippi heading for New Orleans, on its first voyage since being repainted. The fire started in the pantry and spread, destroying nearly everything on board, including the ship's books, mail, and 500 bales of cotton. Some crew members believed the fire to be accidental, while others suggested that it might have been deliberately set. When the fire was discovered, the boat headed to shore at the Yucatán Plantation in Louisiana. The captain was W.S. Cannon (son of Capt. John Cannon, who owned the steamboat), and the pilot, John Stout, was credited with saving many lives. The survivors were rescued by the J. M. White, and taken back to Vicksburg.
Three chandeliers originally on the Lee are currently at the First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson, Mississippi. Another chandelier is in the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. Additional items originally of the Lee are at the Howard Steamboat Museum in Jeffersonville, Indiana.
A stern wheel steamer named Robert E. Lee was built in 1969 based on an old Corps of engineers hull. Moored as a floating restaurant in St. Louis, this boat was destroyed by fire in 2010. It was not a replica of the original Robert E. Lee which was a larger side wheel steamer.