John Henry Aulick was born on June 28, 1790, in Winchester, and was the son of Charles Aulick and his first wife Margaret Aulick (maiden name unknown). He entered the navy as a midshipman in November 1809 and took his first extended cruise in 1811 aboard the schooner Enterprise. He was court martialed for neglect of duty in September 1811, but was acquitted. During the War of 1812 he commanded the forecastle on the Enterprise, which captured several British vessels, one of which Aulick commanded back to port. He was later aboard the brig Rattlesnake when it surrendered to the British in the summer of 1814. After several months in captivity, he returned to duty in March 1815 aboard the frigate United States. His war service earned him a medal with the thanks of Congress, a lieutenancy, and recognition as a young naval officer of talent and promise.
After the war J. H. Aulick, as he was generally known, served at sea aboard the brig Saranac, the sloop Ontario, the frigates Constitution and Brandywine, the schooner Dolphin, of which he was temporary commander, and onshore on recruiting and ordnance duty. In 1831 he was promoted to master commandant (later redesignated commander) and was assigned to ordnance duty at the Washington Navy Yard, in Washington, D.C. There he established a permanent residence with his wife Mary Conover Aulick, whom he had married in Newton, New Jersey, on September 14, 1819, and their three sons and three daughters. In 1834 Aulick received command of his first ship, the sloop Vincennes, which was stationed in the Pacific off the coast of South America. From July 1835 to June 1836 he cruised around the world investigating trade conditions and the treatment of American citizens abroad. Returning to Washington, in 1837 he oversaw a coastline survey at the Potomac River for the possible placement of lighthouses or buoys. Aulick was second officer of the navy yard in Washington and its acting commandant from the end of August 1839 until March 1840. Later that year he was named commander of the sloop Yorktown, which was sent to assist American whalers and traders in the vicinity of the Pacific islands of Hawaii and Tonga.
Promoted to captain on September 8, 1841, Aulick returned to the Washington Navy Yard a third time, taking charge as commandant on March 7, 1843. During his tenure the yard undertook increasingly advanced ordnance experiments, particularly Samuel Colt’s research with controlled sea mines. Aulick was detached from the navy yard in February 1846 to command the frigate Potomac on Caribbean patrol. During the Mexican War the Potomac participated in the March 1847 siege of Vera Cruz, where Aulick used his ordnance experience to assist naval shore batteries.
On December 7, 1850, Aulick received orders to command the East India Squadron and later that month was assigned as his flagship the new side-wheel steamer Susquehanna. Before leaving for his new posting, Aulick suggested a plan to Secretary of State Daniel Webster to open trade negotiations with Japan. Webster presented Aulick’s proposal to President Fillmore, who designated Aulick as his envoy to negotiate a treaty of amity and commerce with the Japanese government. Aulick received his official orders to command the squadron on February 11, 1851, and sailed in June on the Susquehanna.
En route to Brazil, on the first leg of the voyage, Aulick quarreled with the Susquehanna‘s new captain, William Inman, over their respective command responsibilities, and both officers irritated Secretary of the Navy William A. Graham by preferring charges against each other. Aulick removed Inman from command on reaching Brazil. Othermisunderstandings during the voyage developed into official charges that one of the diplomatic passengers filed against Aulick with the Department of State. By the end of 1851 Aulick was ordered to be removed from command of the squadron, although he continued to lead it until his replacement arrived late in 1852. Aulick left the East Indian Squadron on February 9, 1853, at Hong Kong and returned to the United States in May. His successor, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, with a larger fleet, completed Aulick’s mission and became famous for opening Japan to the West, one of the major American diplomatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
Despite the Navy Department’s official acceptance of Aulick’s denial of the charges against him, his long career effectively ended with his removal from command of the East India Squadron, a blow that devastated him. He remained on active duty as a senior captain awaiting orders until placed on the retired list on December 21, 1861. He spent much of the(1861–1865) years touring Europe and was promoted to commodore on the retired list on March 12, 1867, after more than fifty-seven years in the navy and twenty-three years and nine months of sea duty.
Aulick died in Washington on April 27, 1873, of softening of the brain and was buried in the city’s Congressional Cemetery with his wife, who had died on September 19, 1866. The Navy named two destroyers for Aulick in the twentieth century.