Robert Blake was born into slavery in Virginia. In June 1862, his owner’s plantation was burned during a Union naval expedition up the Santee River. About 400 slaves from the plantation, including Blake, were taken as contraband onto Union ships and sent to North Island in Winyah Bay. While on North Island, Blake answered a call for twenty single men to serve on the USS Vermont.
By December 25, 1863, Blake had been transferred to the gunboat USS Mablehead and was serving as a steward to Lieutenant Commander Richard Worsam Meade. Early that morning, in the Stono River, the Marblehead came under fire from a Confederate howitzer at Legareville on Johns Island. As Lieutenant Commander Meade jumped from his bed and ran onto the quarter deck to give the order to return fire, Blake followed behind him, handed him his uniform, and urged him to change out of his night clothes.
Blake then went to the ship’s gun deck and was immediately knocked down by an exploding Confederate shell. The explosion had killed a power-boy manning one of the guns. Blake had no assigned combat role and could have retreated to relative safety below decks, but he instead chose to take over the powder boy’s duties. He stripped to the waist and began running powder boxes to the gun loaders. When Lieutenant Commander Meade asked him what he was doing, he replied “Went down to the rocks to hide my face, but the rocks said there is no hiding place here. So here I am, Sir.” The Confederates eventually abandoned their position, leaving a gun behind. For his actions during the firefight, Blake was awarded the Medal of Honor four months later, on April 16, 1864.
Blake was later promoted to seaman and re-enlisted for another term in the Navy. During his second enlistment, he served again on the USS Vermont. Nothing is known of his further life.