Bowdre was born in Wilkes County, Georgia. When he was three years old, he and his parents moved to Mississippi. By 1854, young Charlie started working in his father's farm, and as he grew up became an adept farmer. Much of what Bowdre did between the year in which his last sister was born (1863) and 1874, remains a mystery.
It is believed, however, that he abandoned the family's farm to become a wanderer. Records show that by 1874, he had arrived at Lincoln County, New Mexico. Bowdre became friends with Doc Scurlock during this time, and the two men opened a cheese factory on the Gila River. He also joined Scurlock on several posses during this period, pursuing cattle thieves and rustlers, on several occasions taking part in the lynching of those captured. On July 18, 1876, Bowdre, Scurlock, Frank Coe, George Coe, and Ab Saunders stormed the very weak Lincoln jail, freeing cattle rustler Jesus Largo from the custody of Sheriff Saturnino Baca, taking Largo outside of town and hanging him. No charges were ever filed for the event. On August 5, 1877, he and a companion were arrested for "shooting up" the town of Lincoln while intoxicated.
Lincoln County War
With the outbreak of the Lincoln County War in 1878, Bowdre sided with the Tunstall-McSween side, and he met Billy, Jose Chavez y Chavez and the rest of the Kid's associates, including Richard M. Brewer and Jim French, George Coe and Frank Coe. During the conflict, he was known to have been present with his fellow Regulators when William Morton, Frank Baker, and William McCloskey were killed along the Blackwater Creek on March 9, 1878. Bowdre was shot by Buckshot Roberts during the Gunfight of Blazer's Mills on April 4, 1878, and in turn shot Roberts. Bowdre would be charged with killing Buckshot Roberts during the Blazer's Mills Gunfight, and was present in the July 15 through July 19, 1878 Battle of Lincoln.
After the Lincoln County War
Bowdre worked as a cowboy on the ranches of Thomas Yerby and Pete Maxwell as the war went on, as well as being an active participant. Bowdre married a twenty five-year-old Mexican girl, Manuela, some months before his death. Manuela was a sister to Doc Scurlock's wife, Antonia. The fact that he was recently married when he died makes him less likely to have been involved in the gang's activities during the few weeks that passed between his marriage and his death.
By December 1880, Charlie Bowdre was ready to quit riding with Billy the Kid and surrender for the murder of Buckshot Roberts, but he still joined the rest of the gang on a mission to ambush Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner. A gun battle ensued, but Bowdre and most of the Kid's gang members escaped alive. On December 23, however, the gang was holed up in a rock house at Stinking Springs. At dawn, Charlie Bowdre emerged to feed the horses and was riddled with rifle slugs by Garrett's posse, which had surrounded the building in the night. Later that day, Billy the Kid and his partners gave up. A popular story surrounding Bowdre's death is that he was wearing Billy the Kid's sombrero hat when he was shot, which he mistakenly put on in the early hours of the morning thinking it was his. As soon as he appeared in the doorway he was immediately fired upon as he attempted to exit the rock house. After being riddled with bullets he fell back into the doorway where, at the urging of Billy the Kid to 'take a few of them with you when you die', Bowdre made a valiant exit. Unfortunately he was already too weak and near death at that point and couldn't get his gun out of his holster. In the last seconds of his life he stumbled and fell towards Pat Garrett repeating the phrase, "I wish...I wish...". It was believed by many who were present at the shooting that he was trying to say, "I wish I hadn't worn this hat".
His remains were returned to his wife, and he was interred next to Tom O'Folliard, another member of Billy's gang. In 1962, a relative named Louis Bowdre was found, and a court tried to have Bowdre's remains removed. But the relative disagreed, saying that Bowdre would prefer to rest next to O'Folliard.
Charlie Bowdre was played James Congdon in the 1958 film The Left Handed Gun, and by Charles Martin Smith in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973). In the 1988 film Young Guns, he is portrayed by actor Casey Siemaszko. The circumstances of his death were the basis of a scene in "Young Guns II", however, in the movie Doc Scurlock, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is the one who meets his fate outside the hut, and not Bowdre.