Civil Defense


Because of Greater Philadelphia’s position as a political, cultural, and economic hub, the region’s residents have often found their daily lives deeply affected by times of national crisis. Civil defense, generally defined as local voluntary programs designed to protect civilian life and property during times of conflict, has taken many forms: militia, home defense, civilian defense, civil defense, and in the early twenty-first century, emergency response. As the nature of conflicts changed, so too did residents’ roles in home-front defense, from colonial-era militiamen to the sandbaggers who confronted coastal storms.

A black and white illustration of a tarred and feathered man being paraded through town tied to a post while a large crowd of onlookers cheer and brandish canes.
Pennsylvania’s volunteer militia was activated during some of the nascent republic’s earliest political struggles. During the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, President Washington assembled an army of over twelve thousand men, most of whom were volunteer militiamen from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, to oppose tax resisters in western Pennsylvania. (New York Public Library)

In the earliest days of European settlement in the Delaware Valley, colonists formed militias of able-bodied men to guard their settlements against other imperial powers, Native Americans, and pirates. However, by the time of Pennsylvania’s colonial charter in 1681, militia practices ran counter to the pacifist tenets of the region’s Quaker leadership, and militias mostly disbanded. Neighboring New Jersey and the Lower Counties of Delaware, however, continued to maintain permanent volunteer militias to be at the ready in times of crisis. By the middle of the eighteenth century, noting Pennsylvania’s inability to protect itself, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) was instrumental in mobilizing Philadelphians to join “associated companies,” local voluntary defense groups. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Philadelphia’s associated companies and the Delaware Valley’s regional militias proved difficult to integrate into the Continental Army. In the first years of the war, state legislatures—including that of the formerly pacifist-minded Pennsylvania—passed legislation making militia service compulsory for all white men of fighting age, thereby streamlining military organization.

Like other states and cities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Philadelphia region relied on local militias to preserve public safety during both peace and war. Often, the urgency of emergencies blurred the distinction between militia volunteers, police forces, and those enlisted or drafted into the armed services. As such, civil defense and active defense—or military defense—were often one in the same. In addition to participating in the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia-area militias played an integral role in smaller conflicts in the Early Republic, including the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-94), Fries’ Rebellion (1799-1800), the War of 1812, and the Nativist Riots in the Kensington and Southwark sections of Philadelphia (1844). However, in the relative peace of the antebellum years, militias also were important civic and social organizations, with individual companies frequently composed of men belonging to a particular trade, ethnicity, religion, or political party. Muster days—events held for roll-call and training—often included parades, games, and patriotic celebrations.

A color illustration of Logan Square during a fair. Two large tents and several temporary buildings are shown, and a very large American flag flies over the grounds. In the background, the Cathedral Basilica of Sts Peter and Paul dominates the horizon.
Even President Abraham Lincoln visited Philadelphia’s Great Central Fair, a charity event held on Logan Circle to raise funds and material goods for the Union Army. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

During the Civil War, Philadelphia became central to the Union’s production effort, but invasion threatened the city only briefly when the Confederate Army led by Robert E. Lee (1807-70) entered Pennsylvania in June 1863. Fearful that Lee would march to Philadelphia, volunteer groups rushed to construct physical barriers to defend the city. However, the works projects did not last long; the Union’s victory at Gettysburg ended the immediate threat to Philadelphia. Still, throughout the war, Philadelphian civic organizations such as the Union League called for participation in home guards and home defense groups as part of Philadelphians’ patriotic duty. Generally, these all-male brigades and regiments assumed similar functions to past militias. Women and families contributed to the war effort through charitable efforts, such as Philadelphia’s 1864 Sanitary Fair, or women’s auxiliaries.

Twentieth-Century Civilian Defense

The United States’ early twentieth-century conflicts placed the Delaware Valley in an integral position in war industry and national transportation networks. As the Philadelphia home front became deeply involved in both World Wars I and II, the changing nature of war made new demands on Philadelphia’s civilian defense. New military technologies from both wars, including airplanes, submarines, and missiles, expanded the reach of a potential enemy attack to include the American mainland, beyond the geographic boundaries that once offered Philadelphia protection during ground or naval war. As modern war increasingly threatened the homeland, many Philadelphians grew concerned that the region could be a target.

A black and white propaganda poster showing a cloaked woman carrying a slain girl in her arms. Text reads "Avenge This! Buy a Bond!"
Civilians were encouraged to buy Liberty Bonds after the United States entered World War I to help fund the war and combat inflation. Philadelphians purchased over $400 million in bonds in the two years that they were sold. (Library of Congress)

During World War I, some Philadelphian civilians joined anti-sabotage programs designed to maintain a watchful eye on suspicious activity, especially in military industrial plants. But civilian defense during the Great War was primarily a mobilization effort to support the military, including bond drives for Liberty Loans and draft rallies. Echoing Civil War home guards, citizens enlisted in organizations such as the Philadelphia Home Defense Reserve to assist local officials in the event of a home-front crisis. But the United States’ brief involvement in the war cut short the tenure of civilian defense activities, and most programs were dismantled shortly after the war concluded.

After the United States entered World War II, however, the region revived and strengthened many of its earlier civilian defense programs. While residents of the Delaware Valley once again participated in bond rallies, food rationing, and anti-sabotage campaigns, the preparations for an attack took on a more militarized focus. The Philadelphia city government, newspapers, and civic organizations printed millions of informational pamphlets that included air raid information, instructions for building shelters, and basic first aid techniques. Periodic blackout drills required residents to turn off outdoor lighting, cover building windows with dark curtains, and dim automobile lights in order to disguise the city from potential attacking aircraft. Citizens across the region learned to identify enemy planes, and along the region’s rivers and coastlines, residents volunteered to take shifts as submarine spotters.

Cold War Civil Defense

A black and white photograph showing a class room with children crouching under the desks during a "duck and cover" drill. Another group of children sit against the wall with coats over their heads.
Schoolchildren in Philadelphia learned to “duck and cover” in the event of a nuclear strike during the Cold War. Many local schools were also designated as fallout shelters. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

After the end of World War II, the region’s civilian defense underwent another transformation. Nuclear weapons, used by the United States against Japan at the end of the war and soon after acquired by the Soviet Union, presented a new threat to public safety. The power of nuclear weapons exceeded the destructive capabilities of earlier weapons of war by several orders of magnitude, endangering more civilians than ever before. Because of the Philadelphia area’s importance in industrial production, its critical transportation infrastructure, and its large metropolitan population, the region rushed to find ways to prepare and defend itself from attack. While postwar Americans looked to civilian defense methods from earlier eras, many saw activities such as victory gardens and bond rallies as anachronistic and ineffective for the Atomic Age. In Philadelphia and across the country, Cold War civilian defense became known as “civil defense” in part to distance new strategies from the legacy of outmoded programs.

As in many threatened American cities, Philadelphia’s leadership took an early active role in local civil defense planning. In 1951, Mayor Bernard Samuel (1880-1954) established the Philadelphia County Civil Defense Council, responsible for hosting educational programs and organizing a military-style chain of command to connect city residents with block wardens, neighborhood coordinators, city offices, and civil defense officials. Throughout the 1950s, the council ran citywide drills designed to give civilians an idea of the kind of destruction they could expect, and the actions they would need to take should a real attack occur. Notably, during 1954’s Operation SCRAM (Survival of our Citizens depends on Cooperation, Alertness, and Mobility), more than twenty-five thousand Philadelphians evacuated the blocks closest to City Hall to a muster point on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. With the assistance of federal civil defense funds, cities, counties, and states built a system of fallout shelters—identified by ubiquitous yellow and black signage—in many buildings, including Philadelphia’s City Hall and public schools.

A black and white photograph of the road bed of Benjamin Franklin Bridge with no cars during an air raid drill
The Benjamin Franklin Bridge was completely clear of vehicles just minutes after an air raid siren activated during a 1956 drill. Philadelphians had been participating in air raid drills since World War II. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

One of the most challenging aspects of the Philadelphia area’s Cold War civil defense efforts, however, was the relationship between its cities and surrounding towns and counties. Should an attack occur, the entire Delaware Valley region would need to mobilize to deliver supplies and transport millions of evacuees. Successful civil defense plans thus relied on coordination between the cities of Philadelphia; Trenton and Camden, New Jersey; and Wilmington, Delaware, as well as hundreds of towns and several counties. Because every municipality had different civil defense needs, and every state had its own civil defense legislation, regional and interstate coordination was a logistical problem that officials never fully resolved.

In the end, Philadelphia’s Cold War-era civil defense fell victim to the changing city politics of the postwar period. The Civil Defense Council had difficulty defending its budget and usefulness to reform Democrats, especially as nuclear weapons technology advanced well beyond the capacity of civil defense strategies. Moreover, civil defense was a hard sell to Philadelphians, who balked at rehearsing for such catastrophic war in a time of peace. By the late 1960s, facing significant public apathy and ridicule from critics, the region’s civil defense activities had declined drastically and emergency planning energy was redirected toward preparation for peacetime crises. In 1972, Philadelphia’s Civil Defense Council merged with the Fire Department to become the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP). The OEP relied on regional volunteers and local relief organizations during extreme weather, industrial accidents, and other disasters to assist in preparation and recovery efforts.

Throughout its history, Greater Philadelphia has relied upon its citizens to help keep the region safe. Whether compulsory or voluntary, popular or unpopular, civil defense has shaped the region’s politics and culture. Although the nature of crises and war has changed significantly since the seventeenth century, civil defense has remained a consistent part of civic life in the Philadelphia area.

Sarah Robey is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Temple University, where she studies American nuclear culture. She has been a fellow at the Philadelphia History Museum, the National Museum of American History, and the National Air and Space Museum. (Author information current at time of publication.)

In the years after the 9/11 terror attacks, the public was again urged to play a role in the public defense. Especially in mass transit, signs such as this one on a PATCO commuter train reminded passengers to be vigilant. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)
In the years after the 9/11 terror attacks, the public was again urged to play a role in the public defense. Especially in mass transit, signs such as this one on a PATCO commuter train reminded passengers to be vigilant. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Whiskey Rebellion

New York Public Library Digital Collections

Pennsylvania’s volunteer militia was activated during some of the nascent republic’s earliest political struggles. In 1791, a controversial excise tax was passed on domestic whiskey, an important commodity in western Pennsylvania. Whiskey was used for barter in the region and residents had little money to pay the excise tax on it. In September of that year, a tax collector in far western Washington County was tarred and feathered, his hair was shorn, and he was paraded through town. The Whiskey Rebellion reached a peak in summer 1794 when, despite progressive relaxation of the tax, resisters and tax collectors engaged in a twenty-five-minute gun battle outside of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County.

In response, President George Washington mustered nearly thirteen thousand men, almost entirely composed of volunteers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey’s militias, to engage the resisters. By the time they arrived in October 1794, they faced little opposition. Only twenty men were arrested in connection to the rebellion, two of whom were convicted of treason, the first treason rulings in the new nation. In November 1795, Washington pardoned both men, finding one to be a “simpleton” and the other “insane.” The rulings did set a precedent for other rebellions in the nation, including Fries Rebellion, which unfolded four years later in eastern Pennsylvania in opposition to the House Tax Law and Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798-99.

Nativist Riots of 1844

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Riots broke out in Philadelphia in May and July 1844 as mobs attacked Irish immigrants and Catholic churches. Anti-Irish sentiment in Philadelphia began shortly after the first Irish arrived in the city in the 1780s and increased in the nineteenth century. At the heart of the conflict was religion, with the largely Protestant population clashing with the largely Catholic Irish.

Attempts to find a means of teaching the Bible in schools that would be acceptable to both sides incensed anti-immigration nativists, who staged a massive rally at Independence Hall on May 3. Three days later, the nativists convened in the densely Irish Kensington neighborhood, where violence erupted. The First Brigade of the Pennsylvania militia, led by Brigadier General George Cadwalader, was called in by Kensington’s sheriff, and while they were rarely directly opposed, they could not stop nativists from burning church buildings and homes in the district. Violence ended on May 10, when civilian posses and U.S. Army troops reinforced the militia.

Fighting resumed on July 7, when the nativist mobs reconvened at the Church of St. Philip de Neri in Southwark, where the brother of a Catholic priest had been stockpiling weapons. Cadwalader again led the militia in opposition, but was forced to surrender the church by the rioting nativists, who had reinforced themselves with a cannon. Fighting continued through the night and ended when troops arrived from other parts of Pennsylvania to patrol the city.

Great Central Fair of 1864

Library Company of Philadelphia

While young men enlisted in the Union Army in droves, those who could not enlist due to age or other circumstances found other means to support the Union during the Civil War. The need to supply troops with money and goods to improve their living conditions was highlighted in the multitude of letters enlisted men sent home. Using antebellum benevolent societies as a guide, civilians organized “sanitary fairs” to raise funds and collect material goods for charitable organizations, most notably the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), founded in 1861. Prominent male Philadelphians formed a Philadelphia branch of the USSC, and a women’s auxiliary–the Women’s Pennsylvania Branch–was formed shortly after. Other groups, especially those for women, joined the effort as well.

In June 1864, members of these groups banded together to hold the Great Central Fair on Philadelphia’s Logan Square (now Logan Circle). It took six months to plan and construct the 200,000-square-foot complex that included a 540-foot long central hall dubbed Union Avenue and numerous outbuildings. A massive flag was hoisted above on a 216-foot flagpole. President Abraham Lincoln and his family visited the fair on June 16, and attendees gladly paid double admission to join them on that day. Forty-eight copies of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln were sold as mementos. By the end of the fair, over one million dollars was raised for the USSC, second only to New York City’s fair in terms of total money raised.

In this depiction, the towering building in the background is the Cathedral Basilica of SS Peter and Paul, which was just being completed that summer. It was dedicated on November 20, 1864.

Avenge This!! Buy a Bond

Library of Congress

As with the Civil War effort fifty years prior, civilians were encouraged to contribute to the war effort after the United States entered World War I in 1917. Liberty Bonds were a popular way for non-enlisted to do their part. The government-issued bonds funded military efforts and also combatted inflation by removing currency from circulation during the war. Advertising played on citizens’ emotions and patriotism, depicting scenes such as United States servicemen engaged in combat, cities shelled to ruins, or, as in this 1918 poster, mothers grieving their slain children.

In Philadelphia, organizations like the South Philadelphia Women’s Liberty Loan Committee were formed to promote sale of these bonds in the city. The campaign was wildly successful. About half of all families contributed and by August 1918, the United States was over $25 billion in debt to its citizens through the sale of Liberty Bonds and other government securities. Over $400 million worth of bonds had been sold in Philadelphia by the time the campaign ended in 1919.

Service on the Home Front

Library of Congress

As with World War I, America’s entry into World War II led to calls for civilian participation in defense efforts. Many of the city’s police and firefighters enlisted in the U.S. Army, and civilians were urged to replace them in auxiliary units. Women were encouraged to salvage home goods and plant “victory gardens” where space permitted.

World War II brought a new threat, though. As military technology progressed through the twentieth century, the likelihood of an Axis attack on American soil increased. Civilians therefore were taught to protect themselves in the event of an enemy strike. Pamphlets disseminated in the city provided instructions for building shelters and providing basic first aid. Volunteers patrolled the waterfront for enemy submarines and watched the skies for signs of enemy aircraft. Blackout drills were held periodically during the war, during which civilians were instructed to shut off external lighting, dim automobile headlights, and cover windows with dark curtains to obscure the city’s lights from enemy pilots. These drills were expanded on during the Cold War to include preparedness for nuclear strikes.

Duck and Cover

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

During the Cold War, Philadelphia’s schoolchildren learned to protect themselves in the event of a nuclear strike. They were taught to crouch low to the ground and cover their heads in an attempt to protect them from the aftereffects of a nuclear blast.

A nationally released 1951 short film entitled Duck and Cover was shown to illustrate the technique, instructing pupils to assume this position “when you see the flash.” Civil Defense efforts like Duck and Cover were deemed necessary when the Soviet Union began testing its own nuclear weapons in 1949. Additionally, many area schools were designated as fallout shelters, where the public could seek shelter in the event of a nuclear attack.

Even into the twenty-first century, some of the ubiquitous black and yellow fallout shelter signs remained at area schools. “Duck and Cover” training was officially ended in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union brought the demise of the Cold War.

Independence Hall on Civil Defense Day, 1953

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

In October 1953, Philadelphia observed a Civil Defense day that culminated in a mock bomb strike on the city. In this photograph, Independence Hall is shrouded in smoke from “bombs” detonated on the then-new Independence Mall. Servicemen from the 56th Explosive Ordinance Disposal Squad were brought in to inspect mock bombs that “failed to detonate.” The realistic preview of a bomb strike on the heart of the city, and especially at a location as symbolic to Americans as Independence Hall, was intended to underscore for city residents the urgency of Civil Defense and readiness efforts.

Cold War Billboard on Roosevelt Boulevard, 1951

The United States Civil Defense logo is featured prominently in the upper left corner of this billboard on Roosevelt Boulevard in 1951. Introduced after the United States entered World War II, the triangle shape of the logo invoked the “Three Rs” of civil defense: Readiness, Response, and Recovery.

One of the many ways that Philadelphians were readied for a nuclear strike during the Cold War was the designation of highways for the exclusive use of civil defense and military vehicles, providing for faster response times in the event of an emergency.

Bernard Samuel, whose name appears on the sign as coordinator, was the longest-serving mayor of Philadelphia. He became mayor on the death of Mayor Robert Lamberton in 1941 and held the office until 1952, which put him in power during much of the height of that era’s civil defense efforts.

Air Raid Drill on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

In the 1950s, Philadelphians were well-prepared for the possibility of an air raid by Soviet forces. Several successful air raid drills were held in the city after the Cold War escalated in the late 1940s. Citizens left the roads and sought shelter in nearby buildings during these drills.

This 1956 photograph shows the Benjamin Franklin Bridge devoid of vehicular traffic during a ten-minute drill in which the bridge was evacuated within a few moments. These were not the first widespread civilian defense drills held in the city. During World War II, blackout drills were held to obscure the city’s lights from bomb strikes at night.

Citizens were taught to identify enemy planes and to turn off outdoor lighting, dim car headlights, and draw heavy curtains over windows to block as much light as possible, making it harder for any enemy pilots to identify targets from above.

If You See Something, Say Something

Widespread civil defense efforts of the 1950s and 1960s faded with easing of the Cold War, but after the 9/11 terror attacks, the public was again urged to play a role in the public defense. Especially in mass transit, signs such as this one on a PATCO commuter train reminded passengers to be vigilant and report suspicious objects or behavior to authorities. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

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Related Reading

Dorwart, Jeffery M. Invasion and Insurrection: Security, Defense, and War in the Delaware Valley, 1621-1815. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008.

Newland, Samuel J., and Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The Pennsylvania Militia: Defending the Commonwealth and the Nation, 1669-1870. Annville, Pa.: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Dept. of Military and Veterans Affairs, 2002.

Knowles, Scott Gabriel. “Defending Philadelphia: A Historical Case Study of Civil Defense in the Early Cold War.” Public Works Management & Policy 11 (January 2007): 217-32.

Simon, Roger D. Philadelphia: A Brief History. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2003.

Toll, Jean Barth and Mildred S. Gillam, eds. Invisible Philadelphia: Community Through Voluntary Organizations. Philadelphia: Atwater Kent Museum, 1995.

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