Townsend, Robert was born on October 21, 1819 in Albany, New York, United States. Son of Isaiah and Hannah (Townsend) Townsend.
Graduate Union College, 1835. Attended naval school, Philadelphia, 1835.
Appointed midshipman United States Navy, 1837. Served in Mediterranean on brig Ohio, 1838-1840. Served in brig Porpoise, 1846, participated in expedition against Tampico and capture of Mexican schooner Ormigo.
Served in seige and occupation of Vera Cruz and San Juan d’Ulua. Resigned, 1851; reentered United States Navy, assigned to ship Harriet Lane of Potomac flotilla, 1861, later in ship Miami on blockade duty off North Carolina. Transferred to ship Mississippi, 1863.
Commanded steamer Essex in capture of Port Hudson. Participated in Red River Expedition. Commissioned captain, 1866, sent to Chinese Coast, 1866.