John Henry Aulick was born sometime around 1791 in Winchester, the second of five sons and one of ten children of Charles Aulick and Ann Mary Wetzel Aulick. He entered the navy as a midshipman in November 1809 and took his first extended cruise in 1811 aboard the schooner Enterprise. During the War of 1812 he commanded the forecastle on the Enterprise and later was aboard the brig Rattlesnake when it surrendered to the British in June 1814. After eight 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 Aulick served at sea aboard the brig Saranac, the sloop Ontario, and the frigates Constitution and Brandywine, 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., where he and his wife, Mary Conover Aulick, established their permanent residence. The first of their three sons and three daughters was born about 1824. In 1834 Aulick received command of his first ship, the sloop Vincennes, which was stationed in the Pacific. From July 1835 to June 1836 he cruised around the world investigating trade conditions and the treatment of American citizens abroad. He came back to Washington in May 1838, on a posting as second officer of the navy yard and acting commandant that lasted until September 1842.
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, and other misunderstandings of a more trivial nature developed into official charges that one of the diplomatic passengers filed against Aulick with the Department of State. To quiet the diplomats Fillmore ordered Aulick removed from command of the squadron. Aulick left the East India Squadron on February 8, 1853, at Hong Kong and returned to the United States. 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 April 4, 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 Congressional Cemetery in that city.