In the shadow of the Massachusetts State House Wednesday afternoon, a small group contemplated one man’s extraordinary act of bravery.
William H. Carney became the first Black person to receive the Medal of Honor in 1900, after he plucked the American flag from the 54th Regiment’s wounded flagbearer four decades earlier during the height of the Civil War, and refused to let it touch the ground through a gruesome retreat in which he was shot multiple times.
The crowd of several dozen gathered in front of the Shaw Memorial included around 25 of the United States’ 67 living Medal of Honor recipients, who are visiting Boston this week for an annual convention.
The gathering hosted by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society rotates to a different city each year, and aims to connect the community of recipients to each other and the people of the country they served.
“It’s become family,” said retired Master Sergeant Leroy Petry, who received the medal for fighting with the Army in Afghanistan. “These guys were my heroes growing up, and they’re still my heroes.”
The Medal of Honor is the military’s highest decoration, honoring “those who have shown gallantry and intrepidity, at the risk of their lives, above and beyond the call of duty,” the society’s website says.
Recipients are taken on a tour of each city that the convention stops in, visiting memorials, schools, and historical sites. The society has visited Boston four times, more than any other city.
“The Medal of Honor Recipients are thrilled to be coming back to Boston next week,’’ retired Capt. Thomas G. Kelley, one of two living Massachusetts residents to currently hold the honor, said in a statement.
At the ceremony for Carney, the group watched as four Civil War reenactors placed a flowered wreath at the base of the Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial, which honors the efforts of one of the country’s first Black regiments. At the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, more than 280 of the 54th regiment’s 600 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured, or never found and presumed dead. It was the unit’s first and most consequential battle.
Carney, who moved to New Bedford after escaping from slavery in Virginia, served in the 54th Regiment until he was honorably discharged because of his injuries. He later became a messenger at the State House.
“He made the sacrifice, and it was particularly special to be the first Black man to do it,” said retired Staff Sergeant Drew Dix, a medal recipient who served with the Army in Vietnam.
Earlier in the day, recipients, aboard Massachusetts National Guard Blackhawk helicopters, were flown to schools in West Roxbury, Beverly, Duxbury, Lawrence, and Plymouth, where they arrived to packed stadiums and auditoriums.
“I told them, you don’t have to be recognized or given an award to be somebody making a difference,” said Petry, who spoke to a crowd of students at Plymouth North High School. “You have the ability to help somebody else. They may never thank you, but it’ll make you feel better, and you’ve just improved the community in which you live.”
They returned to Boston in the same helicopters, landing on Boston Common’s baseball fields before a fleet of MBTA buses arrived to ferry the group around the city.
At their stop in Faneuil Hall’s historic Great Hall, Governor Charlie Baker lauded their service.
“You represent all branches of the military, you’re from all over the country, completely different walks of life,” Baker said. “What you all share most of all is a desire to... make a big difference in this nation and for the people who live here.”
The society is hosting its annual Citizen Honors Awards for Valor at the Seaport Hotel on Friday, where seven “ordinary Americans” will be honored for exemplifying “the values embodied in the Medal of Honor: courage, sacrifice, commitment, integrity, citizenship, and patriotism,” the statement said.
The group will visit the USS Constitution before the vessel delivers a 21-gun salute Saturday. On Sunday, they’ll visit the South Boston Vietnam Memorial.
“It’s been amazing,” said Petry. “The way we’ve been welcomed, its just reassurance that there’s a lot of people still out there trying to do the right thing and be patriots.”