Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: The Spanish–American War

A We The People Resource
Created January 21, 2011


The Lesson


The Spanish–American War: Battleship U.S.S. Maine

Battleship U.S.S. Maine, at anchor. The explosion in Havana harbor that sank the Maine helped precipitate the Spanish-American War.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On April 11, 1898, two months after the battleship U.S.S. Maine was destroyed by an explosion in Havana harbor, President McKinley sent a message to Congress requesting authority to use the U.S. armed forces to end a brutal civil war in the Spanish colony of Cuba. Congress voted to support Cuban independence, to demand the withdrawal of Spanish troops from the island, and to authorize the use of force to achieve those objectives. On April 25, after Spain broke diplomatic relations and declared war against the United States, Congress formally asserted that a state of war existed. In a whirlwind military campaign, the U.S. Army invaded Cuba and the U.S. Navy destroyed Spanish squadrons in the Caribbean and Manila Bay. Hostilities were halted on August 12, 1898. The two sides signed a peace treaty in Paris on December 10, in which Madrid recognized Cuban independence and ceded Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the United States. With its victory in the Spanish-American War the United States claimed status as a global power – and, in a relative absence of mind, it acquired something of an overseas empire.

This lesson plan, through the use of primary sources and a WebQuest Interactive, will focus on the causes of the war and the political debate in the United States over the advisability of intervening militarily in the affairs of countries.

Guiding Questions

  • Did the SpanishAmerican War define a fundamental shift in American foreign policy? In what way?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • List the causes of the SpanishAmerican War
  • Chart the course of the war, listing the key battles and their outcomes
  • Relate the war to the larger political debate over American imperialism


Americans had long been interested in the Spanish colony of Cuba, one of the last remnants of Spain’s once-great American empire. The island commanded critical maritime lines of communication into the Gulf of Mexico. Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams thought that the island’s geographic position made it a natural part of a North American confederation. American businessmen held substantial investments on the island. During a major popular insurrection against Spanish rule (the Ten Years War, 186878), the American public generally sympathized with the rebels, but the U.S. government chose not to intervene directly.

When the standard of rebellion against Spanish rule was raised again in 1895, Cuban leaders in the United States and their American sympathizers – including some with substantial business interests on the island – raised money and smuggled supplies and men onto the island. Many Cuban leaders, including the famous New York-based writer José Martí (who died in a skirmish in 1895), admired much about the United States but were suspicious of American intentions. A new Spanish commander, General Valeriano Weyler, waged a counterinsurgency campaign that brought the civilian population into concentration camps. Those in the camps suffered greatly from poor sanitation and lack of food and medicine. Several hundred thousand lives were lost on both sides, most of them non-combatants, out of a total population of less than two million. American citizens and property on the island were often caught in the middle of the violence.

The humanitarian disaster in Cuba caught the attention of the popular press in the United States. These “yellow journalists” – especially two competing New York newspapers (William Randolph Hearst’s Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s World) – sensationalized the atrocities of “Butcher” Weyler and urged American intervention. Prominent statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge argued that a great nation like the United States could not honorably stand by while Cuba was devastated and depopulated. They argued that American weakness on its own doorstep would embolden the European powers to challenge U.S. hemispheric interests and global aspirations. These war hawks, following the geopolitical arguments made popular by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, stressed the strategic importance of Cuba.

Through early 1898, however, those who opposed American military intervention in Cuba held the upper hand. The devastation caused by the Civil War was still within living memory. White southerners in general feared that war over Cuba would be fought in the interests of the industrial north and lead to a stronger federal government. Many Americans, not just southerners, regarded the African-Hispanic peoples of Cuba through the prism of race as an “inferior” people, not worth fighting about. Businessmen who did not have a major stake in Cuba were concerned that war would destabilize precarious financial markets. The anti-interventionists pointed to serious human rights abuses by the insurrectos and argued that security and honor for the United States meant staying out the quarrels of others.

President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, was in office when the insurrection first broke out. He was decidedly in the anti-interventionist camp. Cleveland sought to protect American citizens and property while encouraging a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Republican President William McKinley, who assumed office in March 1897, likewise sought a diplomatic solution in which Spain would grant substantial autonomy to Cuba. McKinley also explored the possibility of purchasing the island from Spain. The government in Madrid did not feel it could make such concessions, however, in light of strong domestic opposition to surrendering the last vestiges of the Spanish empire. Spain offered only limited reforms and recalled General Weyler. The Cuban insurrectos, who wanted complete independence from Spain (and from the United States), also rejected compromise. Moderate Republicans and some key Democratic leaders, including William Jennings Bryan, called for intervention on humanitarian grounds. The press published an inflammatory private letter, written by the Spanish Minister to the United States, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, which disparaged McKinley. On February 15, 1898, the battleship Maine exploded while on a “courtesy visit” to Havana harbor. The official U.S. investigation concluded that the ship had been destroyed by a submarine mine of unknown origin. The obvious inference was that Spain was responsible.

Historians disagree whether McKinley reluctantly now followed an enraged American public into war or whether he actively shaped that opinion. The President insisted on Spanish acceptance of U.S. arbitration. He declined the offers of European powers, led by Germany and France, to mediate the dispute. His Congressional supporters carefully orchestrated a joint resolution that supported Cuban independence and authorized the use of force. To promote cooperation with the Cuban insurrectos and reassure European powers of U.S. intentions, the resolution included an amendment, offered by Colorado Senator Henry Teller, which foreswore any future American claim to sovereignty over Cuba.

McKinley did not fully embrace the Roosevelt-Mahan strategic view, but he did believe that the United States must assume a leading role in global affairs and preserve opportunities for American commerce. The SpanishAmerican War was fought with these larger goals in mind. The U.S. Army, which invaded Cuba in early June, was far from ready to fight; its weaknesses became painfully clear over the next few months despite successes such as the famous charge of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. But McKinley and his advisers decided that the war would be won primarily at sea. The newly-modernized U.S. Navy defeated Spanish squadrons in the Caribbean and at Manila Bay in the Philippines, thereby controlling access to Spain’s vulnerable overseas possessions. U.S. forces occupied Guam and Puerto Rico and supported a nationalist uprising in the Philippines. Within three months, the Spanish government sued for peace. Hostilities were halted on August 12, 1898. The two sides signed a peace treaty in Paris on December 10. With its victory in the SpanishAmerican War the United States claimed status as a global political-military power. Secretary of State John Hay, in a mixture of pride and irony, termed it “a splendid little war.” Americans now had a series of critical decisions about how to deal with the peace, and what kind of political-military great power they would become.

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.

Download the Text Document for this lesson, (available here as a PDF Document). This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the various activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.

Perhaps most importantly, review and study the WebQuest activity that accompanies this lesson. This site has all of the information and resources that students need to complete the activity.

In addition, if your students need assistance with primary source documents, the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites may be useful:

Lesson Activities

Activity 1: The Splendid Little War

During months of conflict between the Spanish Army and irregular native forces in Cuba, the United States government attempted to broker a diplomatic solution that would avoid the need for American military intervention and end the humanitarian disaster on the island. With the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor in February 1898, however, events quickly spiraled out of control and Americans rushed to war. In this activity, students will use an interactive WebQuest in which they create a magazine about the Spanish-American War.

To begin, hand out the following document, located in its excerpted form on pages 1-2 of the Text Document that accompanies this lesson:

Discuss with students the ideas/beliefs raised by Grover Cleveland about American interests in Cuba and the reasons for the United States to be cautious about intervention. Make a list of these reasons on the board.

Next, review with students the explosion of the Maine (see “Background Information for the Teacher”) and the tensions leading up to it. Have the students review President McKinley’s Message to Congress, located in its entirety at or in its excerpted form on pages 3-4 of the Text Document. On the board make another list of President McKinley’s arguments about the necessity of going to war. How do his arguments differ from those of President Cleveland? What has changed?

Break students up into groups of four. Explain to students that it is the fall of 1898 and they are all writers for a national magazine. Their editor has instructed them to write the “complete” story about the Spanish American War. In order to make this the complete story, each group member will be writing articles from one of the following roles:

  • Coming of War
  • Battles of the War
  • Opposition to the War
  • Photographer

Next, direct students to the interactive WebQuest. Everything for the assignment, including specific instructions for each part and all of the resources, has been placed on the WebQuest. Review the directions and activity with the students, paying particular attention to the requirements of the project, which vary depending on the role assigned. Encourage students to only use the resources on the WebQuest, as they have been selected to aid them in focusing in on their research topic. Below are the requirements for each of the roles.

Coming of War

It is your job to report on the issues/events leading up to the war.

  • What events occurred to lead to the actual war?
  • What were people in America thinking?
  • How did "Yellow Journalism" affect public opinion?
  • What finally pushed us into war?

In doing this, you must adhere to the following requirements:

  • Your article must be at least two typed pages.
  • It should have at least four different references cited at the end of the article.
  • You should use three quotes from people from that time period.
Battles of the War

It is your job to report on the specific battles of the war.

  • What went wrong, what went right?
  • What were the key land/naval battles?
  • Why did America win the war?

In doing this, you must adhere to the following requirements:

  • Your article must be at least two typed pages.
  • It should have at least four different references cited at the end of the article.
  • You should use three quotes from people from that time period.
Opposition to the War

It is your job to your job is to report on the opposition to the War.

  • What did those opposed to the war do?
  • What did they think?
  • How organized was this resistance?

In doing this, you must adhere to the following requirements:

  • Your article must be at least two typed pages.
  • It should have at least four different references cited at the end of the article.
  • You should use three quotes from people from that time period.

Many photographs of the Spanish American war have been published. Using these pictures, make a visual display of the war.

In doing this, you must adhere to the following requirements:

  • Your article must be at least 4 pages.
  • Each picture should have your own written caption.
  • Include at least four different references (websites) at the end of your article to show where you obtained your pictures.

Inform the group members that they will combine their individual contributions to create one complete magazine.

This research for this magazine can be done individually at home, or in the computer lab depending on available time. Once students have completed their research, they are to create a magazine in which all of these articles are presented. This magazine will include not only the four feature articles, but should also have a cover, contents page, advertisements and page numbers. Remind students that it is to look like a real magazine. Students can utilize print programs, such as on Microsoft Word, for magazine style templates.

Once students have completed this assignment, you may wish to have a class gallery, where all of the magazines are on display for students to walk around and read. If time permits, students could peer evaluate their classmates for an additional grade.

To conclude, discuss the Spanish American War with the students. Does it deserve the title “A Splendid Little War?”


The magazine from the WebQuest should be graded as a formal assessment.

Students should be able to identify and/or define the following:

  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Imperialism
  • Yellow Journalism
  • General Weyler

In addition, students should be able to locate the following on a map

  • Philippines
  • Cuba
  • Guam
  • Puerto Rico

Finally, students should be able to write a brief essay (34 paragraphs) answering the following:

  • How did the Spanish American War change the course of American foreign policy?

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > Asian American
  • History and Social Studies > People > Hispanic
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Investigating/journalistic writing
  • Online research
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • Patrick Garrity, University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources