The peptidoglycan (PG) cell wall is a unique macromolecule responsible for both shape determination and cellular integrity under osmotic stress in virtually all bacteria. A quantitative understanding of the relationships between PG architecture, morphogenesis, immune system activation and pathogenesis can provide molecular-scale insights into the function of proteins involved in cell wall synthesis and cell growth. High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) has played an important role in our understanding of the structural and chemical complexity of the cell wall by providing an analytical method to quantify differences in chemical composition. Here, we present a primer on the basic chemical features of wall structure that can be revealed through HPLC, along with a description of the applications of HPLC PG analyses for interpreting the effects of genetic and chemical perturbations to a variety of bacterial species in different environments. We describe the physical consequences of different PG compositions on cell shape, and review complementary experimental and computational methodologies for PG analysis. Finally, we present a partial list of future targets of development for HPLC and related techniques.