In 1897, little could the men who built the U.S. Lighthouse Service Lighthouse Tender Mangrove have realized at the time just how famous the little ship would someday become. After all, it had originally been built for the mundane tasks of being a cargo tender, homeported in Key West, Florida, to bring supplies to remote offshore lighthouses. The ship was later converted to also serve as a buoy tender.
In February of 1898 when the battleship USS Maine was blown up in Cuba’s Havana Harbor, just hours after the sinking, the Mangrove was in position to hold in its stateroom the first Board of Inquiry as to the cause of the sinking of the Maine. The Mangrove also brought back the dead bodies of the sailors of the Maine, as well as armament recovered from the battleship, and a number of U.S. citizens who were fleeing the conflict in Cuba between its citizens and the ruling Spanish government.
By the time war was officially declared by the United States against Spain in April of that same year, the Mangrove, under the articles of war, was temporarily transferred from the Lighthouse Service to the U.S. Navy. But, while it awaited a Naval officer to take over its command, it sat idle at the dock in Key West, Florida. Its new commander would be Capt. Phillip M. Cosgrove.
Interestingly, Capt. Cosgrove was not a Navy man. He was the commander of the U.S. Revenue Cutter McClane, a former gunboat that had served in the Civil War. Painted all white, the McClane was described as the “cleanest ship along the Florida coast.” It was also stated that the old side wheeler was one of the slowest vessels on the coast. Capt. Cosgrove was not happy being the captain of the McClane, confiding to friends that its duties were boring. Immediately upon the outbreak of Spanish American War when the Navy also took over the Revenue Cutter McClane, Capt. Cosgrove requested a transfer, hoping to get on a ship that would see some action against the Spanish.
Capt. Cosgrove’s request for a transfer was granted, but it was not what he had hoped for. He was given command of the Lighthouse Service Buoy Tender Mangrove. Upon arriving in Key West, Capt. Cosgrove soon got orders that the Mangrove was to be loaded with supplies to bring to the naval ships that were blockading Cuba’s Fort Moro and Havana Harbor.
The fog and the mist was thick as the Mangrove proceeded toward Havana Harbor when suddenly, as the fog began to lift, Capt. Cosgrove, who was looking through his binoculars, saw, to his amazement, a large ship dead ahead. Capt. Cosgrove immediately signaled the engine room’s bell for an immediate reverse of the engines. At once, the propellers of the Mangrove began to churn up an immense amount of water as the ship tried to change direction and speed.
Almost immediately, the other ship that was headed straight toward the Mangrove also slowed down and a white flag was raised from its masthead. Instantly appreciating the meaning of this action, Capt. Cosgrove gave a signal up to the larger vessel and, within earshot, came the words shouted from the other vessel: “We surrender Americanos.”
Quickly realizing what was happening, the crew of the Mangrove mobilized, and with weapons in hand, they boarded the other vessel, now identified as the Spanish merchant ship Panama. So, the Mangrove, instead of proceeding to Havana, escorted their captured ship back to Key West, Florida.
Back in Key West it was soon discovered why the Panama had surrendered so quickly and easily to the Lighthouse Tender Mangrove. It seems that the captain of the Panama had thought, as the fog was lifting earlier that day, that he was encountering the feared and newly launched dynamite cruiser USS Vesuvius, which was one of the American Navy ships that he had a photo of on board the Panama. It seems that, in the mist of the day, the captain thought that the two cranes on Mangrove, used to lift and hoist buoys in and out of the water, were positioned in such a way that they resembled the big guns of the Vesuvius. Obviously he was quite embarrassed that he surrendered to a little lighthouse buoy tender.
Capt. Cosgrove could never have predicted that his previous disappointment in having been assigned to the Lighthouse Tender Mangrove would make him a wealthy man. Because the Panama was considered a Prize of War, the federal government sold the ship for $150,000, and 50 per cent of the money was to be split up between the captain and the 30 other members of the crew. By today’s equivalent, it would mean that well over $2 million dollars was split up among the captain and his crew. However, the money did not come easy. Lawsuits were filed in federal court by the crews of other U.S. Navy vessels that were in the area at the time: those being the USS New York, the USS Indiana, and the USS Wilmington, who all thought that they should share in the prize. But in February of 1903, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the crew of the Mangrove, and the men were finally awarded their money from the prize of war.
The Lighthouse Tender Mangrove continued to serve all the way into 1946 when it was decommissioned on August 22, 1946. It was sold for scrap in March of 1947. It is unclear if any artifacts were saved from the Mangrove to be displayed in museums from this lighthouse tender that played such a pivotal role in United States maritime history. Perhaps there is another story to be told.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2016 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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