Commanding USS Constitution
By Donna K. Keesling
USS Constitution is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat and is the oldest sailing vessel worldwide that can still sail under her own power. Launched on October 21, 1797, she has had seventy-seven commanding officers in her storied history. On January 21 of this year, Billie June (BJ) Farrell was named commanding officer – the first woman to command “Old Ironsides.” Who are some of the other commanders that led Constitution during significant points in her 224-year career?
According to information on the Naval History and Heritage Command web site, Constitution “began her warship career on July 22, 1798, when she sailed to the Caribbean during the Quasi-War with France.” Her active career ended in 1855, when she returned home after serving as the flagship of the African Squadron. Constitution is considered one of the most successful U.S. Navy warships, being undefeated in battle and having captured thirty-three vessels during her career.
Constitution was one of the six original warships authorized by the “Act to provide a Naval Armament,” signed by President George Washington on March 27, 1794. The frigate, primarily designed by Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox, was built at Edmund Hartt’s shipyard in the North End of Boston. The wooden-hulled Constitution is square-rigged with three masts – horizontal yards on each mast carry square sails. Although she was rated at forty-four guns, she typically carried between fifty and sixty guns.
The commanding officer of USS Constitution oversees all operations of the ship and its crew. During her active combat years, there were 450 to 500 men aboard for each cruise. The commanding officer was responsible for preparing the ship for sea, which included recruiting the crew and overseeing tasks to prepare for a cruise. While at sea, he was expected to keep the ship ready for engagement at all times and to direct the action while in battle.
Constitution has had seventy-seven commanding officers since she was launched in 1797. At this time, the commanding officer changes every two years.
The first commander of Constitution was Captain Samuel Nicholson. Nicholson was one of six men commissioned to oversee the construction of frigates for the newly reinstituted United States Navy. He served as commander of Constitution from July 22, 1798 until June 5, 1799. After President Adams ordered the Navy to sea against armed vessels of France, Constitution set out to cruise up and down the east coast. During the first voyage, Nicholson encountered difficulties with the ship including a bowsprit, foremast, and mainmast that threatened to collapse due to the amount of sail the ship carried. Nicholson also made two errors with respect to ships that he chased. He took as a prize the Niger, a privateer manned by French officers, although the crew produced papers showing that they were expatriate royalists operating under British command. The United States was then forced to pay $11,000 in reparations for his error. He legitimately captured the Spencer, a former British vessel that had been taken by the French, but released the prize after a day. Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert was displeased with his performance and Nicholson left his command in June 1799. After his service on Constitution, he became the commandant of the new Boston Navy Yard.
Constitution earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” during her battle with the British 38-gun frigate HMS Guerriere in August 1812. The commanding officer of Constitution during this battle was Captain Isaac Hull. Hull became commander in June of 1810, following his service during operations against Tripoli in 1803 and 1804 and command of USS President. Following two collisions with Constitution and the collapse of her masts, Guerriere surrendered. After determining that Guerriere could not be salvaged, Hull scuttled the ship by igniting the powder in the ship’s magazines. When Constitution returned to Boston, it was met by cheering crowds. Hull was awarded a Congressional gold medal and $50,000 to share with his crew. After leaving Constitution in September 1812 due to a death in the family, Hull commanded the navy yards in Boston, Portsmouth, and Washington, served on the Board of Naval Commissioners, and commanded the Mediterranean and Pacific Squadrons.
The last time that Constitution engaged in active combat was when she was under the command of Captain Charles Stewart. On February 20, 1815, Constitution engaged in a battle with HMS Cyane, a 22-gun frigate, and HMS Levant, a sloop-of-war mounting 21 guns. Although Stewart had been apprised of the likelihood of a treaty by passing vessels, he did not know that the U.S. Congress had ratified the Treaty of Ghent which end the War of 1812 just a few days before.After a few short hours of battle, Cyane and then Levant surrendered. When Stewart returned to port in May 1815, Congress awarded him with a gold medal. $45,000 was awarded to be shared amongst the crew. Following his command of Constitution, Stewart commanded the Mediterranean, Pacific, and Home Squadrons. He also commanded the Philadelphia Station and Navy Yard. Stewart became the first, and only, captain of the USS Pennsylvania, the largest sailing warship built for the US Navy, in 1837.
Commander John Singleton Rudd was the commanding officer during Constitution’s final overseas deployment. On December 22, 1852, Rudd recommissioned Constitution. He set sail for the west coast of Africa in March of 1853, and then patrolled from Liberia to Angola in search of American slave traders for two years. In November 1853 Constitutioncaptured her last prize, the American-crewed slave schooner H. N. Gambrill. Rudd returned Constitution to Portsmouth, New Hampshire in June 1855 where she was placed “in ordinary” (“mothballed”). Rudd did not have a permanent assignment following command of Constitution until he was ordered to take command of the Washington Navy Yard in 1858. He was retired in 1861.
And now, for the first time since she first took to sea 224 years ago, Constitution is under the command of a woman – Commander Billie June (BJ) Farrell. Farrell, a graduate of the United States Navy Academy, was commissioned in 2004. She spent most of her Navy career as a surface warfare officer, serving on several guided missile cruisers and as Executive Officer of USS Vicksburg before taking command of Constitution. Commander Farrell visited Constitution as a teenager in 1998, probably never imagining that she would someday serve as her commander.
USS Constitution is docked in what was once the Charlestown Navy Yard, now part of the Boston National Historical Park in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Although Constitution no longer sails the sea with a crew of four or five hundred, its commanding officer is still in charge of a crew of active-duty sailors. The U.S. Navy Sailors of Constitution, in partnership with the Naval History and Heritage Command, Detachment Boston, the USS Constitution Museum and the National Park Service, “work to preserve, protect, and promote USS Constitution for the people of the United States and the world as a living link to the Sailors and Marines of the past, present, and future.”
 “Vessels Captured by USS Constitution,” Naval History and Heritage Command, last updated December 8, 2017, https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/ships/ships-of-sail/uss-constitution-americas-ship-of-state/background-for-media/vessels-captured.html.
 “Captain,” USS Constitution Museum, https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/discover-learn/history/ships-crew/ranks-and-rates.
 Colonel David Fitz-Enz, Old Ironsides – Eagle of the Sea: The Story of the USS Constitution. (New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004), 186.
 Commander Robert Gerosa, “Background on the Importance of Constitution and Her Mission,” Naval History and Heritage Command, last updated December 13, 2017, https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/ships/ships-of-sail/uss-constitution-americas-ship-of-state/background-for-media/her-mission.html.