William Gordon McCabe was born on August 4, 1841, in Richmond, Virginia, the son of the Rev. John Collins and Sophia Gordon (nee Taylor). After graduating from Hampton Academy in 1858 he became a tutor for the Selden family of "Westover." He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1861 and later received honorary degrees from a number of institutions, including: Master of Arts degree, 1868, and Doctor of Laws degree in 1906 from the College of William and Mary; a Master of Arts degree from Williams College in 1885; and a Doctor of Letters degree from Yale in 1897. McCabe served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, eventually rising to the rank of captain of artillery in the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Colonel William Johnson Pegram. After being paroled in 1865 he founded University School in Petersburg, Virginia; it was eventually moved to Richmond.
He remained its principal until he retired in 1901 and closed the school. McCabe served on the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia, 1888-1892, and as vice-rector, 1892-1896. He was associated with various organizations during his lifetime including: the Virginia Historical Society, the Society of the Cincinnati in Virginia, Sons of the American Revolution, Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, the American Philological Society of the Modern Language Association, the Virginia Gettysburg Monument Commission, Pegram Battalion Veteran Association, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, the Head-Masters' Association of America, Phi Beta Kappa, the University Club, the Westmoreland Club, and the Southern Historical Association. He also served as Commissioner and Director of the Jamestown Exposition. McCabe was a frequent traveler and was well known as a speaker and author. He was the editor of various works of poetry and essays, and he published several original books including: A Grammar of the Latin Language, 1884; Latin Reader; Caesar's Gallic War, 1886; Virginia Schools Before and After the Revolution, 1890; and Memoir of Joseph Bryan, 1903. He was married to June Pleasants Harrison Osborne on April 12, 1867, and had three sons: Edmund Osborne, William Gordon, Jr., and Edward Raynsford Warner. After his wife's death, he married Gillie Armistead Cary on March 16, 1915. McCabe died on June l, 1920, at age seventy-eight.