Lesson Plan

Fort Hancock: A Bastion of America's Eastern Seaboard

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 7 Standard 2A: The student understands how the American role in the world changed in the early 20th century.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.

Essential Question

Is national defense a priority?


1. To trace the development of the U.S. coastal defense system and its connection to the country's foreign policy;
2. To understand the arguments favoring and opposing a large program building up coastal defenses;
3. To learn how the evolution of military technology affected this system of defense;
4. To recognize how military expenditures have affected their own community.


Time Period: Late 19th and early 20th centuries
Topics: This lesson could be used in U.S. history, social studies, and geography courses in units on American foreign policy around the turn of the 20th century or in courses on military history and technology.


When Samuel J. Tilden surveyed America's most important harbor, he saw danger. "A million of soldiers," wrote New York's senior senator in 1885, "with the best equipments on the heights surrounding the harbor of New York in our present state of preparation, or rather in our total want of preparation, would be powerless to resist a small squadron of [foreign] war steamers." Nor was the threat confined to America's commercial capital: harbors from Portland, Maine, to San Francisco stood defenseless against any navy that chose to attack. Such an attack, Tilden argued, "...would inflict upon the property and business of the country an injury which can neither be foreseen nor measured."1

Many late 19th-century Americans, however, believed such dangers were remote. Europeans would never attack the U.S., they argued, and therefore money spent on stronger forts and new high-powered guns would be wasted. Existing defenses and the Atlantic Ocean provided more than adequate protection, and keeping expenditures low would both limit taxes and prevent the creation of the type of standing army Americans had traditionally feared.

This lesson uses Fort Hancock in New Jersey—one of the sites Senator Tilden hoped would defend New York—as a base for examining a debate that has run throughout American history. Today Fort Hancock stands silent, part of Gateway National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park System. Although the fort is no longer part of the nation's military, its history illustrates many important issues involving American defense policy.

1Quoted in the Congressional Record, volume 17, part 7, 49th Congress, 1st session (July 1886), 7101.

Lesson Hook/Preview

After the Civil War most Americans wanted to concentrate on domestic concerns. Economic issues dominated society, particularly those that involved the creation of an industrial juggernaut. During this period, the United States increasingly became a nation of industrial cities. Metropolitan areas exploded: between 1880 and 1900 Chicago's population tripled; over the same period New York's nearly doubled. In 1880 fewer than half of America's workers held jobs in agriculture. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the country's development is to point out that by 1890 the value of manufactured goods produced in the U.S. exceeded the combined total of those made in England, France, and Germany.

For the most part, the federal government devoted little time or money to defense and foreign policy issues. During the 1880s the State Department had only 60 employees; spending in 1879 on the Army and Navy Departments was half its level of 10 years earlier. A small group, however, did look outward. Some focused on the Caribbean and Latin America, arguing for a stronger navy to enforce the Monroe Doctrine and even supporting further acquisition of territory. Others concentrated on the European nations, noting their race for colonies in Africa and Asia and the rapid buildup of their navies.

National and international affairs did occasionally overlap. Some businessmen and politicians argued that a stronger military could help the country in at least two ways. A more powerful navy could protect vessels trading U.S. goods overseas, and a stronger system of coastal defenses could safeguard the economic resources in major American cities such as New York. These positions were by no means shared by all, however.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.


Monroe Doctrine

Additional Resources

Gateway National Recreation Area
Visit Gateway National Recreation Area's Web pages for general information on visiting the park.

Maritime Heritage Program
The National Park Service's Maritime Heritage Program works to advance awareness and understanding of the role of maritime affairs in the history of the United States by helping to interpret and preserve our maritime heritage. The program's web pages include information on National Park Service maritime parks, historic ships, lighthouses, and life saving stations. Of particular interest is information on the Sandy Hook Light, the oldest standing light tower in the United States.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
Search the NARA website for a variety of primary sources, including photos of bunkers, guns, and officer's quarters, using keywords such as "Fort Hancock" and "Sandy Hook."

Library of Congress
Search the digital collections using keywords "Sandy Hook" and "Fort Hancock." Primary resources available on-line include photographs, HABS/HAER documentation, periodicals, and Congressional records.

Contact Information

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Last updated: October 12, 2018