Robert Francis Flemming Jr. (July 1839 – February 23, 1919) was an African-American inventor and Civil War Union sailor. He was the first member of the USS Housatonic’s crew to spot the H.L. Hunley before it sank the USS Housatonic. The sinking of the USS Housatonic is remembered as the first time a submarine sank an enemy ship in combat.
In July 1839, Robert F. Flemming Jr. was born free in Baltimore, Maryland, the eldest child of baker Robert F. Flemming Sr. and Mary Jane (Holland) Flemming. By the year 1850, the family had relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Flemming Jr. (age 12) had four new siblings: John (age 10), Catherine (age 5), George (age 2), and Mary (age 2). (an infant). After Flemming Sr. died, Mrs. Flemming opened a boarding house in Cambridge while the three oldest children went to work.
On May 14, 1863, Robert Flemming was working as a marble cutter in New York City when he enlisted in the United States Navy. He was given the Landsman (rank) rating, which is equivalent to the current naval rating of a seaman recruit. His first assignment was to the USS Wyoming (1859) in June of the following year, and he was present when the sloop engaged the Japanese Empire’s naval forces at the Naval battle of Shimonoseki on July 16, that year.
Flemming was transferred to the sloop of war USS Housatonic (1861), which was sent to join the blockade of Southern seaports as part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron the following October. Flemming was on watch on the evening of February 17, 1864, when he noticed a strange object in the water about 400 feet off the starboard bow. He alerted the guard officer, who dismissed the object as a log. “Strange-looking log,” Flemming responded. Upon closer inspection, he discovered that the “log” was not floating with the tide, but was instead speeding toward the Housatonic. Flemming alerted the rest of the crew, who began to get the Housatonic underway, that a torpedo was approaching the ship. However, it was too late; there was an explosion, and the Housatonic sank in 25 feet of water in five minutes, killing five crewmen. As the sloop began to sink, the crew immediately began climbing the rigging or entering lifeboats; however, once it hit bottom, the masts and rigging were still above water, and Flemming and others hung on for 45 minutes until help arrived.
The Confederate States Navy’s secret weapon, the submarine H. L. Hunley, commanded by Lieutenant George E. Dixon and crewed by seven volunteers, sank the Housatonic. As a result, the Hunley was the first submarine to sink a warship in combat. Flemming noticed a blue light to the starboard of the Housatonic from his vantage point in the rigging, which was later determined to be the crew of the Hunley’s prearranged signal to friendly forces to light bonfires to guide the crew home. However, the Hunley never returned, leaving one of the Civil War’s great mysteries unsolved.
Flemming completed his naval service on the gunboat USS E. B. Hale after June 1865 and returned to Massachusetts, living and working in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Boston, Massachusetts, where he became a guitar manufacturer and music teacher.
Flemming created the “Euphonica,” a guitar he believed would produce a louder and more resonant sound than a traditional guitar. On March 30, 1886, the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued Flemming a patent (no. 338,727). On April 5, 1887, he was also granted a Canadian patent (no. 26,398). Flemming then went into business for himself, building and demonstrating musical instruments from a storefront on Boston’s Washington Street.
After 1900, Robert Flemming retired to Melrose, Massachusetts, where he continued to teach and perform at various events. In 1907, he wrote a “National Funeral Hymn” for the Grand Army of the Republic.
Robert Flemming, a member of the Grand Army of the Republic Post 30 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, died in February 1919. He was laid to rest in Melrose’s Wyoming Cemetery.