The USS Constitution, commonly known as “Old Ironsides,” has a long and storied history. Now it’s about to make history again.
On Friday, January 21, precisely at noon Eastern, a woman will assume command of the ship when Commander Billie J. Farrell relieves Commander John Benda. Commander Benda has led the ship’s crew since February 2020.
“I am honored to have the privilege to soon command this iconic warship that dates back to the roots of both our nation and our Navy, and to have been afforded the amazing opportunity to serve as USS Constitution’s first female commanding officer in her 224 years,” Commander Farrell said. “I hope to strengthen the legacy of USS Constitution through preservation, promotion, and protection by telling her story and connecting it to the rich heritage of the United States Navy and the warships serving in the fleet today.”
A Historical Legacy
Once the United States gained recognized independence, it had to defend itself from foreign navies and pirates. To do so, Congress authorized the construction of the first six warships in 1794, the National Park Service explains. These warships became the new United States Navy.
Construction on the USS Constitution began in 1794 at a shipyard in Boston. The USS Constitution, which is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat, played a crucial role in the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812.
The USS Constitution, which was undefeated in battle, actively defended sea lanes from 1797 to 1855. Over that time, the ship and its crew destroyed or captured 33 opponents, according to the U.S. Navy.
Now, about that nickname. During the War of 1812, the Constitution’s crew defeated four British frigates during three separate engagements. The ship came to be called “Old Ironsides” after British cannonballs were seen bouncing off the Constitution’s strong oak hull.
More Historical Achievements
Commander Farrell is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Arkansas. Her most recent post was as the executive officer aboard the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Vicksburg.
While Commander Farrell will be the Constitution’s first female commanding officer, she won’t be the first woman serving on the ship.
“This is an exciting time in Boston with a female mayor and a female captain for Old Ironsides,” Anne Grimes Rand, USS Constitution Museum President and CEO, said. “Women have been represented in Constitution’s crew since I joined the museum staff in 1986, and the first female officer came aboard in 1996.”
Indeed, the first female commissioned officer to serve aboard the USS Constitution was Lieutenant Commander Claire V. Bloom, who served as an executive officer. The first female crew member was Rosemarie Lanam, an enlisted Sailor, who joined USS Constitution’s crew in 1986, the Navy explains.
Today women comprise more than one-third of the 80-person crew.
“I know the crew is in great hands with Commander Farrell,” Commander Benda said. “This historic barrier is long overdue to be broken. I cannot think of a better candidate to serve as USS Constitution’s first female commanding officer. I look forward to watching what she and the crew accomplish in the next few years.”
Know Before You Go
The USS Constitution is operated by the United States Navy, a partner to the National Parks of Boston.
USS Constitution will be closed during the ceremony, but if you’d like to visit some other time, here’s some good news: Tours are offered every 30 minutes. Each tour takes about 30 minutes.
Admission to USS Constitution is free. Admission to the USS Constitution Museum is by donation.
If you are planning to visit, keep in mind that USS Constitution is a historic ship, therefore accessibility is limited. The USS Constitution Museum, however, is accessible.
You can learn more about visiting the ship and museum here.
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