They were two of Essex County's heroes, Confederate Gens. Robert Selden Garnett and Richard Brooke Garnett, two cousins from the Virginia countryside who had been classmates at West Point. Both renounced the Union to join the Confederacy, only to die in battle.

For years their somber portraits -- one with a beard, the other with mutton chop sideburns -- hung together with small brass nameplates in the county courthouse.

That is, until Carroll Garnett, a retired FBI agent from Washington and a distant relative of the two men, returned to his native Essex County and began prowling around the courthouse and into the family archives.

To the astonishment of courthouse officials and townsfolk, he announced his finding: The nameplates on the generals Garnett had been switched.

But what began as a relatively simple attempt to rectify what FBI man Garnett said was an obvious historical error climaxed in a six-hour courtroom drama here in which Civil War historians, librarians and two factions of the Garnett clan clashed.

The unusual proceeding -- newspaper editor Willie Cleaton called it "a spat among a few blue bloods" -- came after Emory L. Carlton, the county's senior practicing attorney, challenged Garnett's assertion. The portraits, he countered, were properly labeled.

After all, Carlton, a distinguished-looking barrister who favors three-piece suits with flaming red pocket handkerchiefs, should know about the courthouse. He has practiced law in the county, southeast of Fredericksburg, for 53 years, 25 of them as a prosecutor.

Carlton went into the circuit court, seeking a ruling that the generals were correctly identified and that their nameplates didn't need changing. He took out advertisements in newspapers and historical journals across the country inviting anyone with information about the portraits to testify.

Last Friday, Carlton was on the witness stand for more than three hours, offering 50 exhibits -- letters, photocopies, frayed documents from the Library of Congress, West Point archives and Museum of the Confederacy -- in support of his contention that the pictures were correctly marked.

Garnett fought back with his own testimony and evidence, including a letter from an editor of Civil War Times Illustrated. "Good luck in the proceeding," the editor wrote. "You shouldn't need good luck, though, you're right."

Carlton dismissed some of Garnett's evidence, "coming from New York, where they know us not."

Nor was the lawyer impressed by Garnett's button offensive: a crucial part of the wrong-name strategy. It was based on the only known photograph of Robert Selden Garnett, who died in battle in 1861 near what is now Carrick's Ford, W.Va.

That photograph showed him with mutton chops and a U.S. Army uniform with two rows of buttons and an oak leaf. Army officers above the rank of captain wore uniforms with two rows of buttons; captains and lieutenants had only one row.

Richard Brooke Garnett, who died at Gettysburg in 1863, never rose above captain in the Union Army. But Robert Selden Garnett, who was a commandant at West Point, rose to major, and thus was entitled to two rows of buttons.

"You can't go by the buttons," Carlton demurred. He based his case largely on an earlier courthouse portrait of Robert Selden Garnett that was damaged in a 1965 fire.

"The smoking gun hung up there for 50 years," said the lawyer, pointing to a spot on the courtroom wall, where a picture identified as a bearded Gen. Robert Selden Garnett had been displayed since 1899.

The general's likeness was there "from the day I walked in here in 1933 as a young lawyer" until they were damaged, said the lawyer.

For six hours Circuit Court Judge Dixon L. Foster and a good contingent of townsfolk listened to such arguments. Then the judge announced that "we are not here to decide" which general wore a beard, and which wore mutton chop sideburns -- keys to the identification -- but whether the labels should be reversed.

"The labels will remain as is," he said, despite "strong evidence that actually the labels are reversed."

Reached at home last night, the judge said there was "evidence both ways. It was not a real legal case, but more or less an informal hearing." Foster said he had "no idea" who was right and who was wrong.

After the courthouse fire, Carroll Garnett's brother, Muscoe Garnett, a millionaire oil and lumber dealer from Suffolk, commissioned new portraits, based on the generals' likenesses as shown in Ezra Warner's book "Generals in Gray."

Carroll Garnett first saw the new portraits in 1980, while researching what his attorney, John W. Ware Jr., jokingly calls "The War of Northern Aggression." Carroll Garnett said he called his brother about the nameplates. "He told me he knew about the mistake, and would take care of it." But Muscoe Garnett died a few months later, without getting the tags changed.

Garnett told court clerk Augusta Wilkerson about the tags. When he learned four years later that nothing had been done, "I was furious."

Historical journals have done little to solve the dispute. Even Carlton acknowledged that a majority of the publications support Garnett, saying he found six journals with "correct identifications and 10 with incorrect."