Two Seneca scouts ran ahead through the forest as Washington and his 40 militiamen, along with Tanaghrisson and 15 warriors, followed close behind. The scouts soon returned to tell Washington and Tanaghrisson that the French force of about thirty soldiers was encamped nearby in a slight depression beneath a rocky outcropping. Apparently feeling secure, the French had not posted any sentries.
Washington decided to divide his force into three groups. The first, under his personal command, would move around to the right of the French camp, and Stephen’s men, including William Crawford, would march to the left. The Seneca, meanwhile, were to position themselves at the rear of the camp to cut off any escape route. With the orders given, all three groups moved out, took their assigned posts, and made themselves ready.
What happened next remains a historical controversy to this day, as various British and French accounts differ markedly. Everyone seems to agree that shooting suddenly erupted, leaving 10 Frenchmen dead, including Ensign Jumonville. Washington captured 22 others, among them Jumonville’s second-in-command, Ensign Pépin. There is also agreement that French fire killed one of Washington’s men and wounded two others. Moreover, after the French surrendered, the Seneca scalped their dead, later sending the scalps to other tribes as grizzly trophies designed to enlist their participation in a new war with France.
Washington insisted that Jumonville’s men discovered the Virginians, and the French troops began shouting the alarm. At that point, Washington ordered his troops to open fire. The French returned fire, much of which they directed at Washington’s right column, and the fight “only lasted a quarter of an hour, before the enemy was routed.” In his account Adam Stephen wrote, “A smart action ensued: their [the French] arms and ammunition were dry being sheltered by the bark huts they slept in, we could not depend on ours, and therefore, keeping up [withholding] our fire, advanced as near as we could with fixed bayonets, and received their fire.” According to Stephen, Crawford and the rest of the Virginians on the left rushed into the French camp shortly after the firing began to find Jumonville already dead.
Meanwhile, the French asserted that Jumonville was on a diplomatic mission to deliver a message to Governor Dinwiddie. This meant that the ensign was actually an envoy, just as Washington had been the year before. They stated that after the first two volleys from the Virginians, Jumonville’s interpreter shouted over the din of the rifle fire in an effort to get the Virginians to cease fire so that Jumonville could explain the reasons for his mission. At that point, the French claimed that the Virginians did stop shooting, which allowed Jumonville to read his message aloud through the interpreter. But before Jumonville could finish one of Washington’s men shot him through the head. This act, the French argued, was the assassination of a diplomatic messenger, and one ordered by George Washington.