Biography written by Douglas Mooney.
William Babe was born in Philadelphia in 1826 or 1827, and was educated in the public schools of the city. His father was a cabinet maker by trade, and as a young man William also followed in this profession. After completing his apprenticeship, Babe moved for a time to Trenton, New Jersey, to work as a journeyman cabinet maker. During this time he also enlisted in a local militia unit, and at the onset of the Mexican War he worked diligently to raise a company of men for the engagement. When these initial efforts failed, Babe took the men he had enlisted and joined one of the companies being raised in Philadelphia by Captain David McDowell. This unit was eventually entered service as Company C of the New Jersey Battalion, and was mustered in at Fort Hamilton, Governor’s Island, New York, on September 4, 1847.
On the 29th of September, 1847, Babe and his company departed in the ship Senator for a six week journey to Vera Cruz, Mexico. After arriving, the men of the New Jersey Battalion were sent to the Jalappa region, between Mexico City and Vera Cruz, but were never actively engaged in major combat. Instead, these units spent nearly a year on garrison and convoy duty, and scrapping with local guerilla forces. Years later, Babe recounted to the Philadelphia Inquirer one violent and distasteful encounter he experienced with the “Mexican bandits” who were engaged in “a war of robbery and murder.”
They captured some our men in the fights we had with them…and they gave no quarter, but killed all who fell into their hands. Did we retaliate? Yes. We took them to a little clearing in the chaparral and gave them a chance to run. But the bullet of one or another sharpshooter was too fast and true for most of them and they dropped in their tracks.
After being mustered out of service, in August, 1848, Babe went back into the cabinet making business in Philadelphia, married and started a family, and in the 1850s spent several years working as a constable in the city police force. He also became involved with the “Scott’s Legion”, an organization of Mexican War veterans in the city. Around 1858, he moved his family to Lionville, in Uwchlan Township, Chester County, and established his own cabinet making business.
At the start of the Civil War, Babe again answered the call to duty and worked to raise a company of men for service in defense of the Union. This unit enrolled in June 1861, at Lionville, and took the name “Exton Guards”. After being officially mustered in at Harrisburg on July 17, the company was given the official designation Company K of the 4th Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps, with William Babe commissioned a Captain in command of the company. Babe’s official enlistment papers recorded his physical characteristics, and described him as 33 years of age, 5 feet 11 inches tall, with a fair complexion, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Babe remained in command of Company K until poor health forced him to resign his commission on February 18, 1862. At this time the Pennsylvania Reserves were stationed at Camp Pierpont, Virginia, and preparing for the Peninsula Campaign. Officially, the cause of Babe’s resignation was a severe attack of peritonitis – an infection of the inner lining of the abdomen. After resigning, Babe moved with his family back to Philadelphia. His military career was far from over, however, and over the next three years he would serve as a company commander with four additional volunteer units.
On June 26, 1862, Babe enlisted in Company A of the 68th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, along with many other Mexican War veterans of the Scott’s Legion, and with this unit saw action in the Battle of Fredericksburg. In the aftermath of the battle Babe again was again stricken with debilitating peritonitis and was forced to resign once more, on January 7, 1863.
In June of that same year, as fears of a possible Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania spread, Governor Curtin issued a general call for thousands of emergency militia troops to help in defense of the state. In Philadelphia, the early civil rights leader Octavius Catto saw an opportunity to get African American men into the fight and began to raise a company of volunteers, many of whom were his students from the Institute for Colored Youth. Based on his prior experience, William Babe was selected to lead this company. The men of this unit were organized and outfitted at the city arsenal and quickly sent to Harrisburg to be mustered into service, but were ultimately – and wrongly – rejected from serving. Had it been accepted, this company, with Babe in command, would have been the first African American unit from Philadelphia to serve in the Civil War.
When his African American company was dismissed, Captain Babe began recruiting unit of white men from the city that eventually became Company C of the 44th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia (the “Merchant’s Regiment”). This unit was raised on short notice from Philadelphia, Chester, and Montgomery Counties, and was equipped by a group of local merchants. Enlisted for a maximum period of 90 days, or until the Rebel threat was averted, this regiment was assigned to the Department of the Susquehanna and never saw combat. William Babe mustered out with his company on August 27, 1863.
The following year, Babe was drawn back into service in command of Company K of the 197th Volunteer Regiment. Mustered in on July 23, 1864, this regiment was drawn from Philadelphia and the surrounding counties and enlisted to serve for 100 days. Although expecting to be sent to the front for combat, the regiment spent most of its service at Rock Island, Illinois, guarding a camp for Confederate prisoners of war. Babe was mustered out with his company on November 11, 1864.
In the final year of the war, Babe was mustered back into service on March 1, 1865, and took command of Company G of the 213th Volunteer Regiment. Drawn from Philadelphia, Chester, Berks and Juniata Counties, this regiment was organized with the assistance of the Union League Association and spent the duration of its time guarding a variety of military installations in the vicinity of Washington, D.C. Babe was mustered out with his company, this time for good, on November 18 of that year.
After the war Babe returned to his home in Philadelphia, and for a time worked as a salesman. Then, in 1872, after the death of his wife, Caroline, he went back into service as a constable in the city police force. He served faithfully in this capacity until poor health forced him to retire in 1890. Two years later, Babe was appointed Superintendent of Independence Hall and held that post for three years. On May 4, 1895, William Babe lost his long battle with heart disease and “dropsy”, and was buried in the Glenwood Cemetery Vault in Ronaldson’s Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Armstrong, Samuel S.: 1929 Trenton in the Mexican, Civil, and Spanish-American Wars. In A History of Trenton 1679-1929. Edwin Robert Walker and Clayton L. Traver, eds. Trenton Historical Society, Trenton, New Jersey.
Bates, Samuel P.: 1868-1871 History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
FamilySearch.com: 2012 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Death Certificates 1803-1915. https://familysearch.org. Accessed October 2012.
North American Gazette, August 27, 1863.
Philadelphia Inquirer, January 6, 1895
Philadelphia Record: 1892 Almanac 1892. The Record Publishing Company, Philadelphia.
Sprogle, Howard O.: 1887 The Philadelphia Police Force, Past and Present. Howard O. Sprogle, Philadelphia.
Waskie, Anthony and Edwin C. Bearss: 2011 Philadelphia and the Civil War: Arsenal of the Union. The History Press, Philadelphia.