In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, few pastors in the Lehigh Valley were more revered than the Rev. Stephen Albion Repass. With his flowing white beard and stately manner, the rector of Allentown’s St John’s Lutheran Church looked like an Old Testament prophet in a stained glass window.
This scholar and president of Muhlenberg College was also known for his deep compassion- a pastor who was truly a shepherd not just to his congregation, but to the community at large. And that community had returned his kindness with devotion and respect.
Yet things might have turned out differently if history had taken a different turn. For in 1863 Stephen Repass had come into Pennsylvania not as clergyman but as an invader, a member of an army that many residents of the Lehigh Valley saw as a destructive, treasonous hoard. If things had been different, he might well have entered Allentown as a conqueror.
This year there have been all kinds of re-enactments of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. But it would be fair to assume that no one would want to repeat the real thing. There was panic in Allentown and across the state as telegraph keys clicked with the news of the impending invasion. Harrisburg was being evacuated as state officials fled for their lives. To slow the invaders railroad bridges over the Susquehanna River were burned. And even in relatively far off Philadelphia, trenches were being dug in the streets in case they might be necessary to block the rebel advance.
Lieutenant Stephen Repass of the CSA was among those they feared. Although of Pennsylvania German heritage, his family had moved farther south into Virginia sometime in the 1790s. He was born in Wythe County Va., on November 25, 1836. His parents Rufus and Sallie Repass were devout Lutherans. His mother had always planned that young Stephen become a minister. So in 1858 he entered Roanoke College in Salem, Va., to study theology.
But the times were not meant for quiet study. Passions were running high among the all-male student body. Some felt that Virginia must leave the Union. Others thought this step too radical and held out hopes for a compromise. But after the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 the line had been crossed. When Virginia left the Union, Repass went with her.
Student records at Roanoke show Repass joined the Confederate Army as a private. But he apparently showed himself a skilled soldier, for he rose rapidly in the ranks. One early 20th century newspaper article was to claim Repass had been shot and wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run.
Research by students at Roanoke in the 1980s showed that it was at the Second Battle of Bull Run on Aug. 29-30, 1862 that Repass received his wound, a bullet passing through his groin and through his body, coming out at the back.
By mid-1863 Repass was fully recovered. By that spring he was in Brig. Gen. Robert Garnett’s brigade, a part of General George Pickett’s Division. They were a part of the 28th Virginia Infantry of which Repass was a member of I Company.
Repass’s major role at Gettysburg was not until the great battle’s last day. It was then that Lee decided to launch what is known as Pickett’s charge. Repass apparently never questioned his orders but like the good soldier he was, he marched straight into the Union gunfire. Of the 333 men in the 28th Virginia Regiment, 44 were killed, 65 wounded and 73 were listed as missing.
Only once did Repass express what he thought that day. The Allentown Daily City Item quoted him this way:
“In speaking of this charge, Rev. Repass said that the most vivid impression he retained of that battle was the emotion that thrilled him as he looked down the line of battle one mile long, that was soon to roll onward, carrying with it the hopes, the prayers, the edifice of the Confederacy itself, only to sink beneath the crimson tide which swept away the last hope of the South.”
After that moment it apparently became something of a blur to Repass. All around him bullets whizzed and men died. Cannon shot apparently crashed past him and the ground shook. But he and several other men, one carrying the regiment’s colors, kept their eyes straight ahead on a stone wall behind which the 1st Minnesota Regiment of the Union Army waited.
At some moment Repass and his comrades reached the wall. By now the tidal wave of soldiers that Lee had hoped would meet and smash that barrier had been reduced to little pools of men. They seeped over the wall and fell forward, collapsing into a sea of blue uniforms. The afterward celebrated “high tide of the Confederacy” had carried Repass as far as almost any Rebel soldier would ever go.
For Repass and his seven comrades the war was over. He was sent to a POW camp at Sandusky, Ohio on Lake Erie. His 21 month stay there included a cold winter. Finally in 1865 the war ended and Repass was set free.
The now hardened soldier returned to the Roanoke College he had left as a school boy. Following graduation he kept his promise to his mother and entered the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
It was in 1885 that he accepted a call to become pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, where he served until his death in 1906.
Perhaps the highpoint of his career came in 1899. That June Repass, 63, was called on to help dedicate Lehigh County’s Soldiers and Sailors monument in Allentown. On October 19, 1899 he gave the benediction following the statue's unveiling. It is said that the statue, which included a Confederate soldier, did so to honor him.