Oakley, James M.

12th New York Militia
1st Lieutenant

Oakley, James M
James M. Oakley. Photo from the Queensborough Public Library.

James M. Oakley
12th New York State Militia
1st Lieutenant

James M. Oakley was born on June 19, 1838, in New York City, one of three sons born to James and Francis Oakley.

When the younger James was only seven years old, his father died. His mother, Francis, later married Richard W. Smith of Coram. The 1850 census lists her as Smith's wife, living in Coram with her sons also.

The Smith home and hotel dated back to the late 1600's. British soldiers used it during the Revolutionary War. According to local tradition, Smith's mother, Lucille, served President Washington at the hotel during his tour of Long Island in 1790.

James was greatly influenced by his stepfather, Richard. In addition to running the family farm and hotel, he was elected Suffolk County Sheriff and was later elected to the New York State Assembly.

This civic-minded upbringing influenced James, at the age of twenty-two, to enlist when the Civil War broke out. He enlisted with the 12th New York State Militia. The period of enlistment was then only three months, as many people felt that the war would be of short duration. Described by friends as good looking, talented and universally popular, Oakley was elected First Lieutenant. He was mustered out on January 24, 1862, at the end of his three months.

Not one to stay idle, Oakley re-enlisted ten months later, on November 1, 1862. He joined other local men in Company F of the 159th New York Volunteer Infantry. His military file, however, does not show that he spent any time with the 159th, and his name was stricken from the muster rolls. Apparently, Oakley was released because he was too ill to continue active duty.

Nevertheless, Oakley continued his work with the war effort when he joined the Provost Marshal's office for the First Congressional District of New York. The primary function of the Provost Marshal was to apprehend deserters and rioters. When in camp, the Provost Marshal was responsible for maintaining discipline and order in the camp. Oakley was stationed at Jamaica, the main induction center, where they received recruits from the newly enacted draft law.

After the war ended, Oakley remained in Jamaica. On February 4, 1869, he married Hester Durand, also from Jamaica. They did not have any children, but James poured himself into his work.

Despite working for the war effort, Oakley did not support Lincoln's re-election. A life-long Republican, Oakley voted for General McClellan, who was running as a Democrat against Lincoln in 1864. From that time on, Oakley was an active member of the Democratic Party. In 1870, he followed in the footsteps of his stepfather, Richard W. Smith, and successfully ran for State Assembly. He was re-elected four more times. In 1876, Oakley was chosen as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. While there, he helped his friend, Governor Samuel Tilden of New York, secure the Democratic presidential nomination.

In 1877, Oakley was nominated for the New York State Senate, defeating James Otis of Suffolk. His next attempt was a run for the United States Congress, but he lost by 2,000 votes.

Oakley soon ended his career as a legislator. He became very involved in the world of Wall Street, which made him quite wealthy. When the New York, Woodhaven and Rockaway Railroad Company was organized in 1877, he became one of its directors. He was elected president of the company in 1881, and was given credit for the huge success of the railroad. In a surprising move, however, Oakley sold his interest in the railroad in 1886 to Austin Corbin of the Long Island Railroad for $600,000.

Unfortunately, Oakley never lived to enjoy the fruits of his hard work. On March 28, 1887, at the age of forty-nine, James Oakley died of pneumonia. Only a few months later, his railroad became part of the Long Island Railroad.

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