© 2018 authors. Published by the American Physical Society. Similarly to laser or X-ray beams, the interaction of sufficiently intense particle beams with neutral gases will result in the creation of plasma. In contrast to photon-based ionization, the strong unipolar field of a particle beam can generate a plasma where the electron population receives a large initial momentum kick and escapes, leaving behind unshielded ions. Measuring the properties of the ensuing Coulomb exploding ions-such as their kinetic energy distribution, yield, and spatial distribution-can provide information about the peak electric fields that are achieved in the electron beams. Particle-in-cell simulations and analytical models are presented for high-brightness electron beams of a few femtoseconds or even hundreds of attoseconds, and transverse beam sizes on the micron scale, as generated by today's free electron lasers. Different density regimes for the utilization as a potential diagnostics are explored, and the fundamental differences in plasma dynamical behavior for e-beam or photon-based ionization are highlighted. By measuring the dynamics of field-induced ions for different gas and beam densities, a lower bound on the beam charge density can be obtained in a single shot and in a noninvasive way. The exponential dependency of the ionization yield on the beam properties can provide unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution, at the submicrometer and subfemtosecond scales, respectively, offering a practical and powerful approach to characterizing beams from accelerators at the frontiers of performance.