Written by William H. Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
The term “tender” most often refers to a vessel servicing aids to navigation. In the old days, this meant supporting remotely located lighthouses with supplies and construction materials. As buoys and markers became an important form of navigational aid, the tenders were tasked with servicing them as well. However, in the early days of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, tenders were vessels equipped with lifting apparatus to deliver heavy cargo and construction materials to lighthouses.
Such was the case with Lighthouse Tender Van Santvoort, purchased from its original owner Alfred Van Santvoort in 1857. Built in New York in 1853, the ship was 100 feet long and powered by a coal-fired high-pressure steam engine with side paddle wheels. Made of wood, the Van Santvoort was designed to be a commercial steamer. Its shallow draft and steam power enabled it to navigate shallow and coastal waters independent of wind power making it ideal for lighthouse tender duties.
When the Lighthouse Service acquired Van Santvoort, it was assigned to the 2nd Lighthouse District. The ship made history in a number of ways. Van Santvoort was the service’s first steam-powered lighthouse tender and, in 1858, began serving as the construction tender for the famed Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse off the Massachusetts coast. Built on an offshore ledge, the stone lighthouse was considered an engineering wonder of its day and replaced an earlier lighthouse that had been destroyed by a storm. In September 1860, the service changed the name from Van Santvoort to Coeur de Leon, the French phrase meaning lion-hearted and used to describe brave monarchs Richard I of England and Louis VIII of France.
At the beginning of the Civil War, both the North and South sought Lighthouse Service vessels. By 1861, many lighthouse tenders were steam-powered ships and put to use for military purposes. In the South, the Confederacy commandeered eight lighthouse tenders. In the North, the U.S. Lighthouse Service loaned eight lighthouse tenders to the Union Navy. By April 1861, the Lighthouse Service had transferred Coeur de Leon to the Union Navy.
After taking control of the Coeur de Leon, the Navy docked the tender at the New York Navy Yard to convert it to a warship. The Navy added armor plating to the exposed surfaces and armed it with a 30-pound smoothbore cannon, 12-pound rifle, and 12-pound smoothbore cannon. In October 1861, while still property of the Lighthouse Service, the Navy commissioned the former tender as gunboat USS Coeur de Lion. Its crew of 29 officers and men included an acting master, two junior officers, two engineers, a pilot, a surgeon’s mate and a paymaster.
On Oct. 2, 1861, Coeur de Lion steamed south to its new homeport of Washington, D.C., where it became part of the Potomac Flotilla. Also known as the Potomac Squadron, the Navy created the flotilla in the early days of the Civil War to secure the Chesapeake Bay’s shorelines and tributaries, disrupt Confederate shipping and military operations in these waterways and, generally, to enforce the Union Blockade of the South. As part of the flotilla, Coeur de Lion served as a tug and patrolled the Potomac and James rivers and many other inland waterways in the southern Chesapeake Bay.
Later in the war, Coeur de Lion continued to secure the shores of the Chesapeake and enforce the blockade. In February 1863, the crew captured the schooner Emily Murray in Machodoc Creek, Virginia. In April, the ship steamed up Southeast Virginia’s Nansemond River looking for enemy forces. On April 17, fire was exchanged with Confederate batteries on the Nansemond and, on April 18, suffered extensive battle damage. Nonetheless, on April 19, the tender’s commanding officer accepted the surrender of at least one of these enemy fortifications. Later, while patrolling on the Potomac, Coeur de Lion captured the schooner Robert Knowles in September 1863 and schooner Malinda in June 1864.
On May 15, 1865, after the conclusion of hostilities, Coeur de Lion returned to the Washington Navy Yard. It was decommissioned on June 2 and returned to the Lighthouse Service the following day. In February 1866, the service sent the ship to Philadelphia to determine its value as a tender. Still showing battle damage from its duel with Confederate shore batteries on the Nansemond, the service’s surveyors found her “worthless as a tender.” In November, it was sold to a private party for $1,800 and operated until 1873 as the small merchant vessel Alice.
The little steam tender with the heart of a lion had had a distinguished career. The tender supported the construction of the famous Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse. It also aided in the development of hot air balloon technology and served honorably in combat with the Union Navy’s Potomac Flotilla.