Private Michael Altfillisch
Fifth Iowa Volunteer Cavalry
From a Contemporary Tintype
Michael Altfillisch was born in Germany, but grew up in Bellevue, Iowa. His father Florian and his second wife Franziska (he had been widowed) immigrated in 1856 with their seventeen children. Michael was fourteen when the family originally settled near Galena, Illinois. Just six years later he would be donning a Union uniform to preserve the unity of his adopted homeland. Prior to the war, he clerked in the general store, and was so successful that he was offered a share of its ownership in exchange for the promise that he would not open a competing store. This business acumen would be evident during the postwar period also.
Altfillisch's name was incorrectly recorded as "Altfilish" in the Official Roster. This sort of error was common with troopers whose European names were unfamiliar to recruiters. Altfillish's enlistment was preceded by that of his elder brother-in-law, Sergeant Caspar Deppe, in the Fifth Iowa Infantry.
He enlisted in Company H on August 7, 1862, but was not mustered until the first of November. After serving with the regiment for a year and a half, he was one of those unfortunate troops who was taken prisoner in the battle fought at the Chattahoochee River in Georgia, on July 31, 1864. He was transferred to Andersonville, and managed to escape at some point. He evaded recapture until he was far enough north to be confident he had reentered the Union lines. Upon returning to the army, he spent an extended period of time recuperating from his injuries. Altfillisch mustered out of the regiment at Clinton, Iowa on June 6, 1866.
Following the war, he returned to the general store where he eventually bought out its original owner. He helped found the Grand Army of the Republic Post in Bellevue. Prospering in his mercantile activities, he now speculated in railroad lands. He was similarly successful in those ventures. He made returns of 1000 to 1500 percent. He became a millionaire and ceased his speculations. He founded the Germania State Bank of Iowa, which persisted long after his death in 1893. It would survive as part of his legacy until the Great Depression. Although the bank did not last, his greater legacy--that for which he risked his life during the war--continues to prosper as the Reunited States of America.
As befitted a man of his civic standing, Altfillisch's obituary was quite impressive. As it appeared in the October 19, 1893 edition of the Bellevue Leader:
ANSWERS TO THE LAST CALL
Michael Altfillisch was born in Germany, September 9, 1842, emigrated with his parents to America in 1856 and died of consumption, October, 11th 1898, after a long illness.
The deceased only attended school six months after coming to this country. In 1857 young Altfillisch secured employment as a clerk in a store in this city, where he remained two years. About this time he had a narrow escape from death, being struck and almost killed by lightning, August 7, 1858. Was afterward employed as a clerk in John A. Westin's store, on the levee, where he continued to find employment until the breaking out of the great civil conflict in 1861. He enlisted August 7, 1862, in the 5th Iowa Cavalry, and served continuously two years, or until August 7th, 1864, when he was captured by the rebels, made a prisoner of war, and sent to that hell hole of all prisons, Andersonville. There he met another brave Bellevue soldier, Tony Weinscheink, who had been captured and made a prisoner of war. Tony once told us that when Mike came into the stockade he was wearing an old silk, stove pipe hat that he had picked up somewhere. He also said that Mike was then one of the brightest looking young men in Andersonville. He remained nine months in prison, when he was exchanged and sent to the Union lines, and continued to serve with his regiment until June 6, 1865, when he received an honorable discharge from the army.
He returned to Bellevue and engaged in the general merchandise business with Jacob Becker, now of Maquoketa, opening their establishment Aug 7th, 1865, in the same store room now occupied by Schnier & Altfillisch. He soon bought out Mr. Becker and ran the business alone, making a bushel of money until Aug 7th, 1893, when he retired in consequence of ill health.
Mike Altfillisch, as he was familiarly called, was married to Miss Lucy Robb, Aug 18, 1866. She bore him eight children, six of whom survive him, namely: Mrs. H.N. Schnier, F.M. Altfilisch, Clara, Louis, Frances, and Michael. The wife and mother died Feb 10th, 1880.
Mr. Altfillisch was remarried Dec 22nd, 1882 to Miss Caroline Marquis. Five children were the fruits of this second union, namely: Carrie, Millie, Albert, George and Gussie.
As will be seen after reading the above, the 7th of August was an eventful day in Comrade Altfillisch's career. He said in speaking of this strange coincidence, that it almost made a fatalist of him. The deceased had filled every office in the gift of the people of Bellevue. He was elected commander of the Jackson County Veterans Association two years ago and had served six years as one of the board of soldier's relief commissioners. Was an active, useful member of the Iuka Post, G.A.R. , the Harru Gari and Workman Lodges, and had often served as their presiding officer. He was also a member of the school board at the time of his death.
Last winter he made a tour of the southern states, and of course he visited the site of the old Andersonville prison. The trip was taken for the benefit of his failing health, but it did his case no good. Comrade Altfillisch was proud of his soldier record, as well he might, and his heart beat with patriotism, and warm sympathy for his old comrades in arms. He seldom missed attending any of the national, state or local reunions. One year ago he journeyed to Washington city to be present at the great national encampment which met there.
The deceased in life was a good citizen, a successful business man, an obliging neighbor, a kind husband, an indulgent parent, and a self-made man. He was industrious, wide awake and thrifty, any where and under all circumstances. Even in Andersonville he managed to always have plenty of the best the miserable place afforded. He told the writer that he actually made and saved a surplus of five dollars during his nine months imprisonment on that plague spot of the rebellion.
The funeral took place Sunday afternoon and was the largest ever seen in Bellevue. A great crowd hovered around the residence of the deceased while the last sad rites were being conducted by the Rev. Sargent. When the funeral procession reached Front Street it numbered 104 carriages, buggies and other vehicles. The Iuka Post G.A.R., the Workman and Harru Gari Lodges attended the funeral in a body.
The deceased had accumulated a fortune and leaves his family well provided for. Many of his friends from abroad were present at the funeral.
The Fifth Iowa Cavalry website is extremely grateful to Michael Altfillisch for the photograph and information about his great-grandfather.