USS Clara Dolsen

The USS Clara Dolsen was a massive sidewheel paddleboat built in 1861 and used by Confederate forces until its capture by the U.S. Navy during the 1862 St. Charles Expedition.

The Clara Dolsen was a 939-ton sidewheel paddleboat built at Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1861 for Captain William T. Dunning, A. P. Stewart, and S. B. Edwards of New Orleans, Louisiana. Its hull was constructed at the Leatherbury yard, and its machinery was manufactured by C. T. G. Dumont. The Clara Dolsen was 273 feet long and forty-two feet wide, and it was powered by five boilers and twenty-eight-inch cylinder engines. Its paddlewheels were thirty-six feet in diameter with fourteen-foot buckets. The ship was acknowledged as “one of the largest, handsomest, and in every respect finest steamers on the river.”

Captain George W. Cable became master of the Clara Dolsen in February 1862 and apparently put it into Confederate service. The steamboat was at Helena (Phillips County) when a flotilla left Memphis, Tennessee, on June 13, 1862, to bring supplies via the White River to Major General Samuel R. Curtis’s Army of the Southwest, which was then threatening Little Rock (Pulaski County). As the Union ships approached Helena, the Clara Dolsen cast off, easily outdistancing the Federal warships and avoiding cannon fire from the USS Mound City and the armed tug Spitfire. The Union ships continued down the Mississippi the next day, and the Spitfire proceeded up the White River, discovering the Clara Dolsen hidden in a slough. The Spitfire’s crew seized the steamboat.

The flotilla continued up the White River, encountering Confederate batteries at St. Charles (Arkansas County). One fired a shell that burst the steam drum of the Mound City, killing or wounding 150 of its 175-man crew. The Confederate commander later told a Union officer that the Clara Dolsen was under his command and that he had intended to sink it alongside the CSS Maurepas and two other steamboats to block the White River. The Clara Dolsen helped transport some of the wounded Union sailors to Memphis.

The Clara Dolsen was serving as a receiving ship at the U.S. naval base at Cairo, Illinois, in July 1862 when news came that Confederate troops had captured Henderson, Kentucky, on the Ohio River. The steamboat was armed with four 12-pounder rifled cannon and 325 Union soldiers, and it was sent up the Ohio as part of a successful joint Army-Navy operation to reclaim the river town.

The Navy Department purchased the Clara Dolsen for $45,000 from the Illinois prize court on May 25, 1863, and though Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter maintained that there was ample evidence to condemn the steamboat as a prize of war, an Illinois district court in February 1864 ordered the vessel restored to its owners. It was transferred from U.S. service that May. After the Clara Dolsen was put up for auction to settle the estate of one of its owners on June 28, 1866, the steamboat caught fire and burned at St. Louis on February 4, 1868.

For additional information:
“Clara Dolsen.” Dictionary of American Fighting Ships. (accessed July 13, 2018).

Joiner, Gary D. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.

Way, Frederick, Jr., comp. Way’s Packet Directory. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994.

Mark K. Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas


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