Here's an easy mid-nineteenth century American contra dance well-suited to a Civil War-era ball. I haven't looked extensively, but the only sources I seem to have it in are two manuals attributed to Elias Howe: Howe's Complete Ballroom Handbook (Boston, 1858) and American Dancing Master and Ball-Room Prompter (Boston, 1862).
The dance is given as part of a list of "polka contra dances", and the instructions are identical in both:
First lady followed by first gentleman (with arms akimbo) polka down the centre and up the outside to place--first gentleman down the centre followed by first lady, up the outside to place--first couple down the centre, back and cast off--right and left.
8b First lady polkas down center and up outside on gents' side to place, followed by first gent
8b First gent polkas down center and up outside on ladies' side to place, followed by first lady
8b First couple down the center, turn individually & back, cast off to second place
8b Rights and lefts
The gentleman at least has his arms "akimbo", meaning hands on hips, palms outward. The lady might as well, or be holding her skirt lightly with her fingertips.
Howe suggests that the dance could end with "all Polk round the Hall" -- break the sets and all couple polka until the end of the music.
The virtue of the dance from a caller's perspective is that it is extremely simple to teach; only the first couple does anything for the first twenty-four bars of music, and there is really only one figure to learn. The "chase" figures also allow for flirtatiousness and a bit of silliness. From an experienced dancer's perspective, the lopsidedness of the action is a drawback, but for a group of inexperienced dancers, this makes it more accessible.
The "rights and lefts" is the only figure for which there is really any uncertainty about the reconstruction. This is a "proper" contra, meaning that the gentlemen are on one side and the ladies on the other. The changes are done right to partner, left to neighbor, right to partner, left to neighbor; the only question is whether or not to take hands on each change. The options are:
1. Using both right hands and left hands (chain figure, "circular hey with hands")
2. Using neither right hands nor left hands (original rights and lefts, "circular hey")
3. Using only left hands ("pass right shoulders, give left hands") as in the some contemporary quadrille instructions
I have never been able to find any good description of what would be standard for the era in a contra dance, so I would not regard any of the above as definitively right or wrong and would probably choose depending on the skill level of my dancers.
Because this is a nineteen-century contra, it would most likely have been started by, literally, the first couple and first couple only, with other dancers becoming active as they reached the top and the dance thus "snowballing" down the set until all the couples are active, with the dance ending when each couple has returned to their original places. If dancing it in this format I would recommend a set of no more than six couples, as was noted in later nineteenth-century manuals as a good set length, so that the dance doesn't take forever and/or your musicians rebel. A six couple set with each couple starting as they reach the top will require fifteen repeats of the music and take about ten minutes to dance.
Howe does offer another option for contra dances in general, however:
It is usual for those at the foot of the set to wait until the first couple has passed down, and they have arrived at the head of the set; but there is no good reason why they should so wait, as every fourth couple commence at the same time as the first couple.
So it appears that although it is "usual" for the dance to start only from the top, Howe (or his ghostwriter, or whatever author this bit might have been plagiarized from, as was done freely in this era) at least feels that having every fourth couple start at once is fine. It's interesting that he specifies every fourth couple, which implies a triple minor dance (each figure involving three couples) even though the dance given only uses two couples; the third couple would have absolutely nothing to do. This harks back to the format of the early nineteenth century, in which there would always be a "neutral" couple, totally inactive, between every pair or trio of active couples.
The Sultan Polka was probably intended to be danced to the popular dance tune, "The Sultan's Polka", by Charles D'Albert, published sometime in the mid-1850s. The cover to the sheet music is shown at right (click to enlarge). The sheet music itself has been scanned and placed online by the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music at Johns Hopkins University, and is available online here.
Here's a brief sample of the music, taken from the recording Invitation to the Seraglio by The London Academy of Ottoman Court Music:
D'Albert (1809-1886) was both a dancing master and a composer, and this was one of his most popular tunes. The cover lithograph is by John Brandard (1812-1863), who specialized in dance music covers.